Bluebird's Best: Ellington, Goodman, & Shaw
The Legendary Small Groups
The Benny Goodman Small Groups were born at a party thrown for Mildred Bailey, where Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa (on telephone book) improvised a few numbers for the benefit of the party goers. The format proved to be such a hit that it became a regular feature of Goodman’s program, and thus each night the smaller group broke out from the bandstand to perform a few numbers. Bluebird has already released a compilation of Goodman from the bandstand, so this set provides a look at another side of Goodman, one with whom many might not be familiar, and in a more affordable form than what was available previously.
With Wilson on piano, Krupa on drums and Lionel Hampton occasionally on vibes, Goodman zips through a number of tunes that were normally associated with the orchestra but have been recast as small group swing. All involved seem to enjoy the opportunity to cut loose and have a little fun and all the recordings have the spirit of a group of men swapping dirty jokes over a glass of beer. Krupa provides plenty of sizzle in the background, Wilson lets loose with some bouncy stride influenced piano, and Goodman solos confidently and expertly, albeit with a restrained sense of adventure. Nothing is particularly challenging here, and much of it isn’t particularly memorable on its own. Yet there’s no escaping the charm of these recordings, which exhibit a great deal of exuberant improvising. Those who dismiss the big band era as a bunch of schmaltz may find this collection to be a more palatable way to experience Goodman’s work. Goodman’s tenure on the bandstand will always remain his legacy, but his smaller groups deserve equal recognition.
Frustrated by the music business and his waning popularity, Artie Shaw quit playing in the mid-fifties, weary of a pop music scene that hampered his artistic aspirations. Certainly a man who chose “Nightmare” as his theme song was after something different then Benny Goodman, yet Shaw was forced to curb his ambitions, playing pop fluff simply to earn a living. “Begin the Beguine” says it all; a tune that Shaw loathed, it nonetheless became a huge cash cow for him and forced the rest of his work in its shadow.
Last year Bluebird released Self Portrait, a five disc set chosen by Shaw himself, that highlights a more daring and innovative side to Shaw that many may not have known. Those who are more eager to explore the breadth of Shaw’s work should investigate that excellent collection, for this compilation merely highlights the hits. Shaw’s charts of “Summertime” and “Begin the Beguine” were pioneering and never equaled, and Shaw’s woodsy tone gives little indication of the surly disposition that lurked underneath. “Concerto for Clarinet” is the longest and most daring selection included here; a lengthy tour-de-force recorded at a time when big band music was for dancing, not listening. Stardust is a satisfactory look at Shaw’s career, but one wishes that producer Andy Velez had been a little more daring in the selection process. The quintet recordings from the fifties, for instance, are marvelous and gave a hint of the direction Shaw might have pursued had anyone cared. Nevertheless, if you are looking for one Shaw disc to add to your collection, you can’t go wrong here.
Ellington is considered to be one of America’s greatest musicians, a man whose work spanned six decades and a composer who peeled off classic recordings like he was dealing out cards. Therefore, an Ellington compilation should be a no-brainer, since the Duke has such a vast wealth of classic compositions in his catalog. However, in order to separate this collection apart from other greatest hits albums, producer Loren Schoenberg chose tunes that combine both the classic (“Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Minnie the Mooche”) with the obscure (a feisty piano duet with Billy Strayhorn called “Tonk”). Even those who are well versed in Ellington’s vast body of work may find something here they haven’t heard, but this unfortunately points to the fault of this collection. As an introduction to Ellington, this compilation falls far short of the mark by including marginal recordings that no one would select as among Ellington’s finest. This would be understandable if Schoenberg was working from a skimpy Ellington collection to begin with, but Bluebird is home to the lion’s share of Ellington’s greatest recordings and the omission of “Cottontail”, “Flamingo”, “In A Mellotone” and countless other more worthy choices is a crime. Ironically, it seems the Ellington and the Shaw sets would both have improved had the producers switched roles; the Shaw needs more of the obscure material, whereas the Ellington set needs more of the classics. As always, here’s hoping that one of these days Bluebird finally reissues the Blanton-Webster Band set.
Benny Goodman-Legendary Small Group Sessions
Tracks: 1. After You've Gone 2. Body And Soul 3. China Boy 4. Moonglow 5. Dinah 6. Sweet Sue 7. Stompin' At The Savoy 8. Whispering 9. Runnin' Wild 10. Avalon 11. Where Or When 12. I'm A Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas) 13. The Blues In Your Flat 14. Dizzy Spells.
Personnel: Benny Goodman-clarinet; Teddy Wilson-piano; Lionel Hampton-vibes; Gene Krupa-drums.
Tracks: 1. Nightmare 2. I Surrender, Dear 3. Traffic Jam 4. Concerto For Clarinet 5. Summertime 6. I Get A Kick Out Of You 7. Stardust 8. Lady Day 9. Moonglow 10. The Man I Love 11. Innuendo 12. I Cover The Waterfront 13. Everything Is Jumpin' 14. Dancing In The Dark 15. Begin The Beguine.
Personnel: Artie Shaw-clarinet; various others.
Duke Ellington-Jazz Caravan
Tracks: 1. Take The 'A' Train 2. Creole Love Call 3. The Mooche 4. Shout 'Em Aunt Tillie 5. Creole Rhapsody, Part 1 6. Creole Rhapsody, Part 2 7. Rude Interlude 8. Rumpus In Richmond 9. Concerto For Cootie 10. Dusk 11. Me And You 12. Transblucency 13. Tonk 14. Caravan 15. Depk 16. The Majesty Of God 17. Medley: East St. Louis Toodle-O/Lot O' Fingers/Black And Tan Fantasy.
Personnel: Duke Ellington-piano; various others.
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