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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Benny Rides Again

From the Turntable Dept.: Mosaic Records continues to issue beautifully remastered sets of classic jazz artists – and I don’t at all mind that they recently snuck a Rosemary Clooney set in, because she deserves the attention and – but I’ll be writing about the set shortly. Meanwhile, let’s revisit the review I wrote of a Benny Goodman set that collected his thitherto hard-to-find Columbia sides.


ALONGSIDE MOSAIC’S MISSION to present older jazz recordings in the best possible sound with scholarly annotations has been a dogged pursuit of completism. Which is great for an obsessive collector like me, who wants access to every scrap of a particular artist’s output.

This has drawbacks. So much of my Complete Glenn Miller (Bluebird, not Mosaic) is made up of shitty vocals that I rarely revisit more than a few terrific instrumentals. Few big bands went unfettered by such dreck.

Mosaic has taken this into account and revised their mission slightly. The new Benny Goodman set, covering recordings he made after his glory days at Victor, brings to light seven CDs’ worth of material the clarinetist recorded for Columbia (and its cousin, Okeh) between 1939 and 1958. There are chronological gaps: the early-40s recording ban, a jump to Capitol. There are format elisions: the small-group sides, well covered in Charlie Christian sets. And now, with use of “Classic” instead of “Complete” in the box set’s title, there are interstices of discernment: the vocal sides, which featured Helen Forrest or Peggy Lee, and which, as the producer notes, already are CD available.

The high point here are arrangements by Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell, pushing the concept of the big band sound into the bop era, discovering new textures in the standard brass-reeds-and-rhythm instrumental forces.

Turn immediately to Disc Two and listen to “Benny Rides Again,” an Eddie Sauter chart from 1940 that draws from the drums-and-brass furor that made “Sing, Sing, Sing” such a success and takes it to surprising places. The hallmark Fletcher Henderson call-and-response patterns are there, but they’re thicker, more plangent. And the number opens with a wonderful growly noodling by trumpeter Cootie Williams, taking a break from the Ellington band. And this set contains an alternate take that truly is alternate, showing some very different ideas not only in the solos but also the construction of the piece itself.

“Clarinet a la King” is the better-known track, another Sauter accomplishment. Mosaic gives you no fewer than six versions, offering subtle but fascinating differences. Also in the Sauter realm is “Ramona,” distinguished here by a rare Goodman breakdown track that must have given the pernickety leader conniptions.

Powell was a teenaged jazz-piano encyclopedia when he joined the band. He could swing like a madman in any style, including a voice of his own that he improbably would take into classical music, becoming a distinguished composer-professor. But that was far in the future when he was comping so delightfully behind his own arrangement of “String of Pearls,” sending the Miller chestnut into what I can’t help but believe is a different interpretation of its title.

After some late-40s years away, the band is back in 1951 with a number of ’30s alumni at the stands, including Chris Griffin and Hymie Schertzer, and with other Swing Era veterans like Billy Butterfield and Bob Haggart giving new voices to old Goodman charts. Songs like “When Buddha Smiles” and “King Porter Stomp” get new life and, despite some turgid Goodman with Strings sessions (tastefully remanded to the end of Disc Seven), bring the collection to a tasteful close.

As with all Mosaic releases, it’s been meticulously remastered, rescuing even some of the more neglected alternate takes from audio oblivion, and Loren Schoenberg’s notes are a model of insight and analysis. This may seem like a perfect holiday gift for an aged relative, and you’ll no doubt score big points. My advice? Steal it back.

Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958)
Mosaic Records

Metroland Magazine, 11 December 2008

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