Benny Goodman: Blue Skies

The star of this performance is Fletcher Henderson's chart. The intro starts with an Ellingtonian growl that morphs into a fanfare. From the opening A theme statement, Henderson coyly plays with Irving Berlin's melody, adding syncopation and fills that could serve as a classroom model for "jazzing" a melody. Before long he is constructing a fresh variations, new ways of looking at those blue skies. The section work is excellent, and the rhythm section wisely underplays to let the horns stand out all the more. All in all, it's a great moment in swing, and one that deserved its moment on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Les Brown: Leap Frog

Tenor saxophonist/arranger Joe Garland is best known for "In the Mood," which of course became the anthem of the swing era for better or worse. What many people do not know is that he submitted another one of his catchy riff-based pieces to Les Brown sometime in the mid-1940s. Les once said that it took about a year to get around to finally playing it, but once the band did, it was never out of the book. He recorded it for Columbia Records in 1945 and it was an immediate hit, so much so that Les made it his new theme.

Fast forward to 1951; Les leaves Columbia and signs with the new Decca Records subsidiary, Coral Records. His producer is Sonny Burke, one of his classmates at Duke University back in the '30s, and a fine arranger in his own right. Les re-records his theme with the band he later called his finest, and the performance is nothing short of fantastic. Even though the band had played the piece thousands of times, they still make it sound fresh, and as good as the Columbia studio sound is, the Coral is even better. Dave Pell's has a brief solo, but the band is clearly the star. Who wouldn't want to spend an evening listening and dancing to this powerhouse ensemble?

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: Moonglow

B.G.'s come-hither clarinet and Hamp's voluptuous vibes make "Moonglow" one of jazz's most romantic encounters. The U.S. population spike nine months after this track's release was eminently predictable. B.G. was of course best known for fronting the Swing Era's breakthrough big band, but trio and quartet sessions show his kinder, gentler side. Similarly, Hamp's flamboyant showmanship would subsequently overshadow his musicianship, but "Moonglow" demonstrates what a splendid, intimate instrumentalist he could be. As for the impeccable Teddy Wilson, his elegance is here displayed only on the first 8-bar bridge, but his classiness is felt throughout. "Moonglow" doesn't shine, it shimmers.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing – as heard in Woody Allen's <i>New York Stories</i> (1989), <i>Manhattan Murder Mystery</i> (1993) and <i>Deconstructing Harry</i> (1997)

Immensely popular in its day, "Sing, Sing, Sing" is the nadir of white jungle music. Not to be confused with the 1990s electronic drum-&-bass dance genre, jungle music in jazz has racist connotations. During long runs at such dubiously named Prohibition-era Manhattan nightspots as the Plantation Club and Cotton Club, Duke Ellington's nonpareil orchestra—ignominiously billed as The Jungle Band—entertained white patrons in jungle-themed floor shows with light-skinned Negro female dancers in loin cloths. "Sing, Sing, Sing" updates this foolishness to the Swing Era, and compounds the insult by being performed entirely by white men. Cringe, cringe, cringe at our ancestors' naďveté.

November 20, 2007 · 1 comment


Artie Shaw: Stardust

In Ken Burns's documentary Jazz (2001), Artie Shaw puts down erstwhile rival bandleader Glenn Miller as a mere "businessman." Talk about a pot defaming the kettle! Their only difference is that Miller was pleased to be commercial, whereas Shaw shamelessly posed as an aesthete caught in the vile clutches of industry. To illustrate, "Stardust" offsets standout solos from Butterfield, Shaw and Jenney with strings sawing away as contentedly as if just signed to a lifetime contract with Mantovani. By expressing contempt for show business, Shaw was like the cagey used-car dealer who will ever-so-reluctantly sell you the best buy on his lot but only if you swear on your mother's Blue Book not to tell anyone where you bought it.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: King Porter Stomp

Five years after Jelly Roll Morton recorded his tribute to pianist Porter King, bandleader Fletcher Henderson adopted it, first as arranged by Bill Challis (1928), then by Fletcher's brother Horace (1933). By 1935, as re-scored for Benny Goodman by Fletcher himself, the chart was more Henderson than Morton. In particular, it better focused the catchy hook that Jelly Roll had needlessly buried in mid-piece. With Bunny Berigan's superb trumpeting, B.G.'s saucy clarinet, Red Ballard's mellifluous trombone and an unforgettable call-&-response finale, this is one of the Swing Era's signature records, and a landmark in American pop culture. Not to be missed.

November 12, 2007 · 0 comments


Jimmie Lunceford: For Dancers Only

Sometimes history reflects its target like binoculars turned back to front. Objects, instead of appearing closer, seem more distant. The Swing Era illustrates this phenomenon. Whereas the biggest stars— Goodman, Shaw, Ellington, Basie, Glenn Miller—remain in telescopic close-up, lesser figures such as Jimmie Lunceford have receded to infinity. This is most regrettable because said lesser figures were not all that lesser. As shown by "For Dancers Only," the musical difference between Goodman's and Lunceford's band, each at its best, requires a micrometer to measure. Sy Oliver's bouncy chart and Eddie Tompkins's flamboyant trumpet should turn anyone's binoculars right-way-round.

November 12, 2007 · 0 comments


Lionel Hampton: Flying Home

Jazz's most indefatigable showman, legendary vibist Lionel Hampton, routinely whipped "Flying Home" to such a frenzy that one such performance climaxed with his entire sax section jumping fully clothed off a cruise boat and into the Potomac River. For this exciting studio version of his clamorous closer, Hamp keeps everyone on board, energetically deploying such familiar Swing Era devices as call-&-response patterns, riffing saxes, upward-smearing trombones and ear-piercing trumpets (led by Ernie Royal). Tenorman Illinois Jacquet, though, steals the show with a roguish proto-R&B solo guaranteed to leave you as wringing wet as a late-night dunk in the Potomac.

November 11, 2007 · 0 comments


Count Basie: One O'Clock Jump

With his customary sparse piano, wily Bill B. sets the stage for this easygoing anthem of the Swing Era. Big-toned tenorman Herschel Evans takes the first solo, followed by slurry-toned trombonist George Hunt. Next, light-footed tenorman Lester Young weaves among muted trumpets with the grace of a pickpocket at a Fraternal Order of Police convention. After suave trumpeter Buck Clayton takes the final solo, wily Bill B. cues the sectional soli that served as a model for every big band west of Long Island and east of Catalina: riffing saxes, pinpointing trombones and punctuating trumpets. When one o'clock jumps like this, there's no bedtime for Basie.

November 09, 2007 · 0 comments


Benny Goodman: And the Angels Sing

Ziggy Elman ranks high on the list of shamefully overlooked jazz trumpeters. Great section players aren't always the best soloists, but Elman was both. His self-composed feature with Benny Goodman's big band is actually back-to-back pieces. First, Martha Tilton sings what seems like a fairly innocuous 1930s pop song. Then, out of the blue, the band breaks into a riotous klezmer dance (upon which, it turns out, Elman's melody is based). The intended effect is as jarring as a staid goyish wedding reception suddenly overrun by high-spirited Jewish party crashers. This is so unabashedly good-humored, political correct- ness does not apply.

November 09, 2007 · 1 comment


Bunny Berigan: I Can't Get Started

When Hollywood needed a hyperlink to the nostalgically seedy 1930s for Save the Tiger (1973) and Chinatown (1974), this track filled the bill. Ranking high among Swing Era trumpeters and even higher among jazz's legendary lushes, Bunny Berigan here displays both attributes, playing brilliantly and singing with a wistfulness achieved through years of marinating in bathtub gin. With Prohibition repealed, bootleg drinking's urgency had slackened to laid-back, law-abiding alcoholism. Bunny's slightly woozy vocal exudes just enough vapors to make us root for the deluded braggart and romantic flop of Ira Gershwin's lyric. Fine song; classic performance.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments


Artie Shaw: Begin the Beguine

"I hate the music business," groused Artie Shaw. "I’m not interested in giving the public what they want." This from a man with eight million-selling singles in the 1930s and '40s. His first such hit, "Begin the Beguine," left him rich, famous and utterly disgusted with the "morons" who insisted he play it at every appearance. Count us among the morons. Cole Porter's song is enchanting. Jerry Gray's arrangement is beguiling. The band's execution is immaculate. Shaw's clarinet is unashamedly romantic. So what's to hate? Jazz's greatest ingrate preferred every cloud to its silver lining. Some guys just can't say thanks.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments


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