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The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954)

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The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954) (Mosaic)

Woody Herman and his band were most closely associated with the Columbia and Capitol labels, but in the 1940s and ’50s the clarinetist, saxophonist and influential leader also recorded for the companies you see named in the headline above. The Mosaic label has issued a seven-album set of Herman’s recordings for those labels. The collection seems certain to get the attention not only of Herman fans but also of listeners who want to explore rarely reissued gems of the big band era. Following the success of his “Band That Plays The Blues” in the thirties and early forties, Herman and his arrangers began digging deeply into the innovations of bebop. His organization became one of the most influential of the bands that absorbed bop into their repertoires.

Particularly after the arrangers Neil Hefti and Ralph Burns began stocking the band with adventurous new music, Herman’s organization had a powerful influence on the course of post-World War Two jazz and popular music. His singing had long been an important adjunct to his instrumental work and his choices of female vocalists further strengthened the band’s popularity. It’s a pleasure to have reminders not only of what a musicianly singer Herman was, but of the superb vocals of Frances Wayne and–nearly in the same league–Dolly Houston. Guest appearances by saxophone mainstays of the Duke Ellington band, Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, add further interest. Of the Herman band’s regular principal soloists, saxophonist Flip Phillips, guitarist Billy Bauer bassist Chubby Jackson and trombonists Bill Harris and Carl Fontana stand out in this retrospective. But it must be said that levels of solo quality are high throughout all of the volumes in this valuable collection.

In addition to the work of Hefti, Burns and other important writers, the Mosaic set includes an arrangement by Igor Stravinsky, who had enormous influence on all of Twentieth Century music. The set has only the third movement of Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” from Herman’s 1946 Carnegie Hall concert, but it is a reminder of the universal admiration that the composer inspired.

The 28-page booklet, copiously illustrated, is an important aid to appreciation of the music and understanding of the Herman band’s importance. It has comprehensive liner notes by the distinguished jazz scholar and analyst Jeffrey Sultanof.

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