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Charlie Christian: The Original Guitar Genius

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Christian combines raw-edged Southern blues with daring foetal-bop explorations
Charlie Christian

The Original Guitar Genius

Proper Records

2005

The New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden—active in the early 1900s—won his reputation as a founding father of jazz without leaving any recorded evidence of his talent. His epoch-shaping stature is based entirely on folklore, the testimony of a few contemporaries, and a handful of newspaper clippings. The Texas-born, Oklahoma-raised guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-42) shares something of Bolden's semi-mythic aura.

Like Bolden, Christian is remembered as a seminal innovator, stationed at the fork in the road where cutting edge swing branched off to create bop, and taking turns directing the traffic. Yet although he left enough shellac behind to fill out the four discs on the excellent The Original Guitar Genius—a comprehensive but not complete account of his all too brief 1939-41 recording career—Christian's revolutionary standing is based, in the main, on the anecdotal evidence of contemporaries and two eight-minute jam session tunes recorded after-hours at New York's Minton's Playhouse in May 1941: "Topsy (Swing To Bop)" and "Stomping At The Savoy," both included in this collection.

Those tracks apart, and putting to one side too his early adoption of the electric guitar, the rest of Christian's recorded output is relatively conservative, albeit of transcendent and enduring beauty. Most of his recordings were made with clarinetist Benny Goodman's precisely choreographed sextet and septet, either as three-minute singles or similarly brief airshots, with Christian sharing the limited solo space with Goodman, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (in the sextet) and trumpeter Cootie Williams and tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld (in the septet). On these tunes, Christian's playing—a flowing, long-line, predominantly single-note style, echoed by most other jazz guitarists from that day to this—is rarely less than exquisite, but is delivered so as not to frighten the horses. The bandleading martinet Goodman was a mainstream megastar at the time, and he was not about to jeopardise his income stream.

Discs one and two of The Original Guitar Genius consist of studio recordings from October 1939 to March 1941, mainly under Goodman's leadership. To generalise hugely, disc one features Christian in his most filigreed, chamber jazz mode alongside Goodman and Hampton; disc two, heated by Williams' down-home and dirty, wah-wah muted trumpet, finds him in closer touch with his blues roots. Thoroughly and frequently anthologised as they have been, most of the tracks are pretty widely known by now. The level of invention and musicianship from all concerned, however, means the material remains undiminished by familiarity.

But not all of Christian's studio recordings are as well-known as those he made with Goodman. Among the lesser-known tracks included on the first two discs here are four titles Christian made with clarinetist Edmond Hall's Celeste Quartet in February 1941: "Jammin' In Four," "Profoundly Blue," "Profoundly Blue No.2" and "Celestial Express." These quietly out there and surreal performances—with Christian, unusually, on acoustic guitar, alongside Hall, boogie woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis (on celeste), and bassist Israel Crosby (there's no drummer)—are delightful and bizarre in equal measure. The two takes of "Profoundly Blue" are measured-pace blues, deep and soulful despite—and to some degree because of—the tinkling, Alice In Wonderland trippiness of the celeste. The other two tunes are more romping, in particular the rapid-fire barrelhouse boogie of "Celestial Express," but just as off-planet. If you haven't heard these recordings before, you're in for a special treat.

Discs three and four are made up of August 1939 to June 1941 Goodman airshots and ex-Goodman, leaderless jam sessions—the latter, most excitingly, featuring six tracks (including "Topsy" and "Stomping At The Savoy") recorded at Minton's and another New York after-hours club, Clarke Monroe's Uptown House. Liberated from Goodman's rigidly delineated aesthetic, and in the unrestrained company of other swing-to-bop stylists like trumpeter Joe Guy, tenor saxophonist Don Byas and drummer Kenny Clarke, Christian combines raw-edged Southern blues with daring foetal-bop explorations.

If any one recording can be said to announce the birth of bop—and, of course, no single recording can on its own be so regarded—it's "Topsy," with its electrifying, beat-displacing and shape-shifting rhythm dialogue between Christian and Clarke: a battle cry of a revolution in the making. "Stomping At The Savoy" and a six-minute "Honeysuckle Rose (Up On Teddy's Hill)" are almost as awesome. The other three shorter Minton's and Monroe's tracks are wonderful too (it's just sad that the recording machine didn't capture other more extended jams).

Like saxophonist Charlie Parker (with whom there is no evidence that he ever played), Christian married the visceral passion of the blues with sui generis rhythmic innovation to create a high-octane era-defining monster. Listen to the new music as it was being created here, and it sounds as freshly minted now as it must have done in 1941. With a well-researched and illustrated 44 page booklet, plus punchily remastered digital sound, The Original Guitar Genius is one of the most worthwhile Charlie Christian collections available.

Tracks: CD1: Flying Home; Rose Room; Stardust; Haven't Named It Yet; Memories Of You; Soft Winds; Seven Come Eleven; Honeysuckle Rose; Shivers; AC/DC Current; I'm Confessin' (That I Love You); All Star Strut; Till Tom Special; Gone With What Wind; The Sheik Of Araby; Poor Butterfly; I Surrender Dear; Boy Meets Goy (Grand Slam); These Foolish Things; Six Appeal (My Daddy Rocks Me); Good Enough To Keep (Air Mail Special); L'il Boy Love; Ad Lib Blues. CD2: Wholly Cats; Charlie's Dream; I Never Knew; Lester's Dream; Wholly Cats; Royal Garden Blues; As Long As I Live; Benny's Bugle; Gilly; Breakfast Feud; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; Breakfast Feud; On The Alamo; I Found A New Baby; Gone With What Draft; Jammin' In Four; Profoundly Blue; Profoundly Blue No.2; Celestial Express; Solo Flight; A Smo-o-o-oth One; Air Mail Special (Good Enough To Keep). CD3: Flying Home; I Got Rhythm; Stardust; Tea For Two; Stardust; Memories Of You; Rose Room; Soft Winds; Shivers; Seven Come Eleven; AC/DC Current; Dinah; Honeysuckle Rose; Paging The Devil; Good Morning Blues; Oh Lady Be Good; Till Tom Special; Gone With What Wind; The Sheik Of Araby; Six Appeal. CD4: Benny's Bugle; Honeysuckle Rose; Wholly Cats; Flying Home; Breakfast Feud; Gone With What Draft (Gilly); Solo Flight; Flying Home; Good Enough To Keep (Air Mail Special); Ida Sweet As Apple Cider; Song Of The Islands; Topsy (Swing To Bop); Stomping At The Savoy; Honeysuckle Rose (Up On Teddy's Hill); I Got Rhythm (Down On Teddy's Hill); I Got Rhythm (Guy's Got To Go); Stomping At The Savoy (Lips Flips); Benny's Bugle; Solo Flight.

Personnel: Charlie Christian: guitar. With Benny Goodman & His Sextet, Septet, Octet and Orchestra; Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra; Metronome All Stars; Kansas City Six; Count Basie & Guests; Edmond Hall Celeste Quartet; Collective Jam Sessions. Featured musicians: Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall: clarinet; Earl Bostic: alto saxophone; Lester Young, Georgie Auld, Don Byas: tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, Joe Guy: trumpet; Lionel Hampton: vibraphone; Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Guarnieri, Count Basie, Kenny Kersey: piano; Meade Lux Lewis: celeste; Freddie Green: guitar; Artie Bernstein, Walter Page, Oscar Pettiford, Nick Fenton: bass; Nick Fatool, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Kenny Clarke: drums; others.

Record Label: Proper Records

Style: Dixieland/New Orleans/Swing


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