Monday, June 6, 2011

A couple of anniversaries

Spring's almost flown by, so I didn't realize that in May it was 70 years since Charlie Christian was recorded at Minton's and Monroe's by Jerry Newman.

Seven recordings exist, two of them recorded at the latter venue, five at the former (for more details, go to "May 8, 1941" here). The most famous, and rightly so, is the improvisation on "Topsy", also titled "Swing to Bop" or "Charlie's Choice", depending on the issue. Unless you're particularly interested in vintage memorabilia, you're more likely to hear this music either on CD, mp3 download or streaming, or YouTube (see below). If that's so, there are two versions that you'll come across. One has more background noise, and some overdubbed applause in certain spots. That's probably taken from Vol. 8 of the Complete Edition of Charlie Christian recordings (MJCD75), published by French label Média 7 in 1994. Upside: pitch is corrected so it sounds in Bbm. The other version is the one on Esoteric/Fantasy CD OJCCD-1932-2, with fuller sound, no overdubbed applause, and in a slightly faster tempo (key is closer to Bm).

The hero in this recording is Charlie Christian. At the time there was nothing, nothing at all, remotely close to what he was doing on the guitar. As for the music, he was an obvious follower of Lester Young but he was going his own way, pushing the envelope as regards rhythm and a sort of less melodic approach to improvisation, showing the way to what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie would expose in full bloom four years later.

Some people get hung up in the historical importance of all this. That's fine, I guess, but it shouldn't stop anyone from appreciating and enjoying it as what it is, high-quality, swinging music. It's interesting to see how Christian seems to save himself for the B sections, the bridges where he plays mainly long runs of eighth notes disregarding any bar lines (something Lester Young was well-known for). In the rest, the A sections, he goes more for improvised, short riffs.

Having the guitar in a more rhythmic role gives Kenny Clarke (who deserves much more credit than he usually gets for making things happen here) the chance to free up his playing. However, it is his playing together with Christian what is really astonishing, they really seem to be making a cooperative effort, especially in the A parts, to play in "rhythmic unison" (don't miss the pianist's punctuation in 3:09). As for the other soloists, besides Joe Guy on trumpet, of course there's the pianist. Even though some experienced listeners and the actual label of the original acetate give Thelonious Monk as the pianist, other experienced listeners are sure the ivory tickler here is Kenny Kersey (if you must know, I'm siding with the Monkians). In any case, it is nice to hear Christian play his straight 4/4 "chug-chug" rhythm guitar on the pianist's second chorus.

In case you get lost, the bridges happen, in the slower, Bbm version, at 0:12, 0:47, 1:22, 1:56, 2:31, 3:06, and then 7:06, 7:40, 8:14... how's that for a steady rhythm section?

Here it is, pitch corrected:

and how it's been known for ages, slightly faster:

You can also hear it on Spotify, in Bbm, or in Bm.

As for the other anniversary, this blog was three years old on May 28.

Thanks for reading.

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