Note: This review covers the four-disk sets The Complete Studio Recordings and The Complete Live Recordings.
Charlie Christian is often described as the first great electric guitar soloist, but he was more. Together with Lester Young, Nat Cole, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge he paved the way for bebop by stretching swing era rhythmic and harmonic concepts. He conceived wonderfully imaginative solos with a single-note, saxophone-like attack,
often accenting in unexpected places and creating lines with unusual intervals. Christian had his own approach to ballads. Instead of staying true to songwriters' intentions he approached the songs like slow blues, deconstructing them rhythmically to get personal meaning. His sextet solo on "Stardust" is an example.
Christian's career lasted two years (1939 - 41) before tuberculosis got him. He played in Benny Goodman's sextet as his regular gig but often jammed and recorded with others. Some fans regret that he stayed with Goodman for so long since Christian (and other side musicians) were not allowed much freedomthe sextet played the same restrictive arrangements night after night. Considering the careers of his peers who generally remained as singles (Don Byas, Clyde Hart, Frank Newton for example) Christian was probably better off with Goodman. He didn't have to worry about finding work, and his music reached a wide audience. If Christian had lived he undoubtedly would have left within a year or two. Most of the cuts are by the sextet (actually septet since another horn player besides Goodman was generally included). The sextet recordings are a worthy legacybesides Christian's generally brilliant playing Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and Cootie Williams appear on many tunes and contribute interesting solos. They sound best if listened to a few at a time as they were originally intended.
"Solo Flight," Christian's feature over the Goodman big band.
His acoustic guitar on the "Celestial Express" session including his interplay with the brilliant bassist Israel Crosby. (Pianist Meade Lux Lewis incongruously plays celeste, but it works more than not. A Christian-Lewis-Crosby boogie-woogie background is far more interesting than Edmond Hall's stiff, patterned solo over it.)
The Spirituals to Swing all-star band with Lester Young and Count Basie.
A Goodman octet rehearsal, also with Young (the star of the session), Basie and Buck Clayton.
The Minton's live recordings that allow Christian to stretch out over several choruses and present a flavor of early bop.
A rare Lionel Hampton marimba solo on a "Flying Home" aircheck.
There are three vocal sessions, and they are at least interesting. Fred Astaire sings and (after an abrupt splice) taps over Goodman's big band. Goodman, Hampton, and Toots Mondello (!) are prominently featured while the best soloist in the band plays a barely audible rhythm guitar. Ida Cox "enunciates" rural blues accompanied by swing musicians playing New Orleans-tinged arrangements. Even though crooner Eddy Howard is backed by an all-star band he would likely draw the hook from Ted Mack. The Howard session is partly rescued by a wonderful Teddy Wilson piano solo on "Exactly Like You" and by a Christian break on "Stardust" with a different feel from the sextet version.
As with most "complete" sets there are some missing cuts. For example most alternate takes by the Goodman sextet are omitted. Luckily Christian's best recorded solo, the alternate of "I Found a New Baby" is included. (The master take is left out.) The alternates that are present do not consecutively follow the master takes to prevent a sense of repetition. Personally I would have preferred the approach of splicing in Christian solos from several takes and separating them with band interludes. Also there are several tunes Christian doesn't solo on, but among those are some classic Hampton small bands.
The sound is excellent with the "Minton's" and "Celestial Express" sessions big winners over 1970-era LP's of the same music.
Definitive Records web site:
Charlie Christian web site (includes discography):