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Clarinetist Shaw’s retrospective all aces

Artie Shaw: Self Portrait

Artie Shaw



Bluebird Records




Grade: A+

It’s ironic that Artie Shaw, who often professed a distaste for swing, should be the last living legend of the big-band era. But alive he is, now 92, as crusty as ever but with a mind as clear and crisp as mountain air.

That is what makes the Shaw retrospective significant. The 95 tracks of live and studio sessions in this five-disc boxed set were chosen by the clarinetist himself and, in his view, are the best recordings of his on-and-off career in music (1936-54). They are instrumentals for the most part, because Shaw dismissed most of his work with vocalists as banal and inconsequential.

Most of the cuts come from the RCA and Bluebird vaults because many of Shaw’s premier recordings were made on that label. However, there are also selections recorded for Brunswick during his early years and for MusicMasters (now available on Musical Heritage) at the very end of his activity as a bandleader. And still other songs were recorded for Musicraft.

Shaw had impeccable taste whether it was in women, in sidekicks (John Best, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims and Jack Jenny were among his bandsmen) and arrangers (Buster Harding, Jerry Gray and Ray Conniff all wrote for the band, as did Shaw). And the clarinetist’s big, fat, luscious tone simply had no match.

Taken in chronological order, the Brunswick tracks show Shaw in the developmental stage, but “Freewheeling” and “Cream Puff” demonstrate the clarinetist wasn’t afraid to play outside the box.

Next up, the 1938-39 band was one that swung like no other Shaw band, mainly because Rich was at the tubs. His work was positively electrifying. Check out “Traffic Jam” for proof positive. Other stellar cuts include “Stardust” (one of four versions in the collection), “The Carioca,” “At Sundown” and Tony Pastor’s vocals on “Rosalie” and “Prosschai.”

Shaw added strings to his band in ’40, and with the fiddles came “Frenesi,” as well Billy Butterfield’s tantalizing trumpet on the Gramercy Five’s “Summit Ridge Drive.”

In ’41, it was drummer Dave Tough who sparked Shaw’s recordings of “Take Your Shoes Off, Baby” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” while Shaw distinguished himself on takes of “Dancing in the Dark” and “Concerto for Clarinet.”

Shaw’s four years in the Navy kept him out of a recording studio until 1944, when Roy Eldridge’s trumpet shone on the Gramercy Five’s “Sad Sack,” though it’s Eddie Sauter’s elegant “Made With the Flaccid Air” above all others.

From ’46 on, it is purely potluck. Shaw’s Musicraft entries range from a young Mel Torme and his Mel-Tones offering “What Is This Thing Called Love?” to re-creations of “Begin the Beguine” and “Stardust” to guitarist Tal Farlow’s compelling contribution to the Gramercy Five’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

The fifth and final disc is given over to Shaw’s final recordings – all with the Gramercy Five – that for the most part are intimate, warm and filled with the clarinetist’s still-fresh ideas and glorious sound. There are 12 cut. Three are originals – “The Chaser” and “Scuttlebutt” and the Shaw standby, “Summit Ridge Drive” – while the others include lush versions of ballads like “These Foolish Things,” a reconstructed “Stardust,” a slightly rushed “Dancing on the Ceiling” and the evergreen “Too Marvelous for Words.” Which, like the entire anthology, is just that.

Cam Miller is a free-lance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. Write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, G.V. 95945.


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