Thursday, April 30, 2009
Charlie Christian - First Master of the Electric Guitar (JSP, 2002)
What I find consistently interesting about the greatest musicians of all time is the fact that so many of them accomplished a great deal in very short life spans. We all know about the significance of 27 since it was the star-crossed age at which Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Robert Johnson departed from this world. But even more amazing are the accomplishments of Charlie Christian, who died from tuberculosis at 25. Although he was not the first musician to use the electric guitar, most jazz scholars agree that he was the first to employ it as a lead instrument instead of using it strictly for rhythmic accompaniment. Pretty much every jazz guitarist who followed in his footsteps - from Wes Montgomery to Pat Martino - owes something to his style.
The fact that Christian never officially recorded as a band leader has limited the number of recordings released under his name. For the longest time, my collection included only Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian and the jam session recording Live At Minton's Playhouse 1941. This four-CD box set practically doubles the amount of material available from the man who can truly be called First Master of the Electric Guitar. Other than the first-rate quality of the performances herein, the most impressive thing about this collection is that none of its tracks are previously released studio recordings. Literally everything comes from radio broadcasts, concert performances, and recordings at jam sessions. It's pretty incredible to imagine that jazz enthusiasts were bootlegging live material at such an early date, but that's essentially what the jam session tracks are. Considering that no one before had ever played guitar like Charlie Christian (his single note runs were truly revolutionary) and that his instrument was still a novelty at the time, the cognoscenti must have realized that they were witnessing the birth of a truly groundbreaking new sound.
Although the stories about his early life vary somewhat and have been subject to numerous revisions, there seems to be a consensus that legendary record industry giant John Hammond, Sr. became aware of the guitarist's talent after making a reputation for himself playing with bands in Oklahoma City. Hammond, in turn, connected Christian with swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, who ultimately recruited him for his band. While I hold Goodman to be somewhat indirectly responsible for the cringe-inducing swing revival of the mid to late 1990s, there is no denying that his performances with Christian really cook. Perhaps the fact that the guitarist wasn't content merely to strum along with the rhythm section and instead fancied improvisational leads helped bring out the best in the otherwise relatively square clarinetist. Indeed, the first disc of this set primarily consists of NBC Radio live broadcasts of Benny's sextet from 1939 which also included legendary vibraphone player Lionel Hampton and pianist Fletcher Henderson. Yes, there are multiple interpretations of "Flying Home," "Stardust," "Memories of You," and "AC/DC Current," but since this is jazz, they all feature their own unique improvisations, and it's interesting to note the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in each version. Tracks 4, 5, and 6 present Christian in a slightly different context, this time playing as part of a quartet (that also included bassist Oscar Pettiford) during a jam session in Minneapolis.
The second disc sandwiches Christian's appearances with the Benny Goodman Sextet, the Kansas City Six, and Count Basie's big band at John Hammond's celebrated From Spirituals to Swing concert between more first-rate NBC Radio broadcasts. The broadcasts present the guitarist with a slightly reformulated Goodman Sextet, with Johnny Guarnieri having replaced Fletcher Henderson on piano. Of particular note are the two versions of "Gone with What Wind" that showcase Christian's differing approaches to improvisational soloing. "Till Tom Special" features some especially fluid guitar work. The From Spirituals to Swing performances (which temporarily brought Henderson back into the fold on piano) are at their best on the sublime "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Honeysuckle Rose." The mind boggles at the Count Basie big band lineup that performs on the epic "Oh! Lady be Good" (clocking in at more than 10 minutes), a group that included legends Lester Young and Buddy Tate on saxophones, Christian on guitar, and Basie, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons all taking turns on piano. Even more amazing is the fact that these tracks were all recorded during a five month period between December 1939 and April 1940. Most musicians don't lay down this much good music in five years.
Disc C consists of material from 1940 and 1941 broadcasts from NBC, WNEW, and the Mutual Radio Network. All things considered, the sound quality is quite good on most tracks which capture Christian at the height of his powers while playing with Goodman's band. The driving "Seven Come Eleven" practically rocks, and it's difficult to choose a favorite among the three versions of the cleverly-titled "Six Appeal." "Gone with What Wind" (track 7) is a superb rendition of this oft-performed number that took place during the Democratic Campaign Rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I guess FDR was a Charlie Christian fan, and it's amusing to hear the announcer use the title of the song to poke fun at Republican opponent Wendell Wilkie. Tracks 8-10 find Goodman expanding the size of his outfit to good effect with the addition of Georgie Auld on tenor saxophone and Cootie Williams on trumpet. "Flying Home" (track 12) is a veritable supersession that includes no less than a dozen musicians, including Red Norvo on prominent xylophone. "Solo Flight (Chonk, Charlie, Chonk)" suffers only from its brevity. The final two tracks, "Flying Home" and "Good Enough to Keep (Air Mail Special)" find drummer Gene Krupa with the Goodman-led band, and you can easily hear his little percussion flourish toward the end of the former.
The concluding disc includes material from April, May, and June of 1941. The fact that Christian's instrumental prowess can make even the trite "Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider" worth your time is yet another testament to his artistry. His opening guitar work on "Song of the Islands" is absolutely gorgeous. Tracks 6-11, all recorded at jam sessions in Harlem (without Goodman's band), alone justify having this collection. "Topsy," " "Honeysuckle Rose (Up On Teddy's Hill)," and the two interpretations each of "I Got Rhythm" and "Stomping at the Savoy" are swing on the verge of becoming bop. This isn't just great music; this is musicians making history, folks. The final three tracks find Christian back with Goodman and, with the exception of another fine take on "Solo Flight (Chonk, Charlie, Chonk)," sound a bit tame compared to the aforementioned jams.