Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Charlie Christian Genius boxed set

(This is a translation of my review for Cuadernos de Jazz)

Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar
(4-CD set, Sony/Legacy 88697930352; released in 2012)

Charlie Christian (el-g) with, among others, Benny Goodman (cl), Lionel Hampton (vib), Cootie Williams (tp), George Auld, Lester Young (ts); Johnny Guarnieri, Count Basie (p); Artie Bernstein (b), Nick Fatool, Dave Tough, Jo Jones (d).

Recorded in New York and Hollywood, between 1939 and 1941.

When it comes to jazz, the recording industry, whatever's left of it, lives on reissues. These are cheap to produce, whether for the legal owners of the masters, or whoever chooses to shield themselves behind EU law. Poor little us are left, in the meantime, with a mess of sets to be checked for price, sound quality and track titles to avoid duplication or just hoarding more stuff. A true nightmare.

Sony, one of the majors, owns what it used to be Columbia and has also acquired what it used to be RCA, making it the owner of the two more powerful labels of the 1950s. Of recent, they have been putting out some attractive boxed sets. Some of them are necessary, like the Woody Shaw, which even carries previously unissued material. Others are not so urgently needed. What is becoming apparent is a certain carelessness regarding quality. For instance, in the Ellington box they've not used the opportunity to restore Clark Terry's coda on “Up and Down...” to its original, glorious version. In Louis Armstrong's set, they've used some old masters for the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, thus making disks 1 and 2 (out of 10) sound at the wrong pitch. Apparently, they've used the contents of the early CD reissues done over 20 years ago, the ones with the blue frame and the stamp “CBS (Columbia in the US) Jazz Masterpieces”.

That certain carelessness remains in this Charlie Christian set, but fortunately the errors on the original set, C4K 65564, from 2002, are minor. Actually, there's a significant improvement in the design of the box. Whereas the original had the disks uncovered and stuck in a foam base which would stick to the CDs in certain climates, by going for a cheaper and simpler version (each CD in its sleeve, relevant track list on the back of the sleeve, plus a booklet, all set in a box) they have avoided any awkwardness and have made life simpler for the listener.

The booklet has been reduced from 72 to 39 pages; although it carries fewer pictures, image quality has been maintained, as well as the errors in the captions where dates are wrong (most blatantly in the studio session with Basie and Lester Young – go here for the right data). As for the text, the biography by Peter Broadbent remains (he’s still referred to in the present tense, although he died last year), but we’ve lost Les Paul’s introduction, a number of quotes about Christian from other famous guitar players, and, more importantly, the session-by-session analysis by Loren Schoenberg (which, luckily, can be read on his website). As for the actual disks, these are exactly identical to the ones released in 2002, so much so that they preserve the mistake regarding “I Found a New Baby”: the alternative take is the original, and vice versa.

But let’s leave all that aside and face the music. This set comprises all significant studio recordings featuring Charlie Christian for Columbia. The main bands, the sextet with Lionel Hampton, and the septet with Cootie Williams and George Auld are two of the most exciting combos in the history of jazz, which were also popular and influential at the time. Those three soloists, along with Goodman, always play at a very high standard, pushed by Christian’s own brilliance and some very swinging rhythm sections.

Much has been written about the historical importance of these recordings, and rightly so, since this was the introduction of the electric guitar to the wider audiences, but don’t take them as some sort of historical obligation. This is delicious music. The tunes are simple, many not much more than a riff, the solos are imaginative, and they swing even more than Goodman’s previous small units. All this somehow points towards the approach Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (especially the former) would follow only four years later.

Although Christian’s complete recorded output would easily fill four or five more CDs, this set has most of his studio work, including some big band tracks, and other jewels that remained unissued for years, such as the October 28, 1940 session, a rehearsal that justifies the rumour, at the time, about a possible Goodman-Basie band; here we have Goodman and Christian, plus Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. Christian knew the Basie bunch before he joined the big time, and the affinity is obvious, besides the fact that Young was Christian’s model as a soloist. Another cornerstone of this set is the 20-minute jam session recorded in the studio while the sextet waited for the boss. The first two minutes sound as if they were recorded on a cardboard disc, but the rest sounds crystal clear and it’s an extraordinary document on the internal dynamics of a combo at work (it’s quite clear that Christian leads from the guitar), as well as another delight for the ears.

So, what about sound quality? It’s exactly the same as the 2002 edition, absolutely extraordinary for recordings from 1939-1941 (Columbia studios in New York were especially good), and restoration is flawless (the producers of the original set, and this is identical, were Michael Brooks and Michael Cuscuna, whereas Ken Robertson, Mark Wilder and Seth Foster took care of the sound). Besides the nuances that can be heard, this was the first time that the mess of alternative takes and the splicing of solos in some tunes, namely “Breakfast Feud”, was untangled.

Besides all guitar players you could name, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Milt Jackson... have spoken about their admiration for Charlie Christian. Here you can hear why, in an (almost) impeccable presentation.

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