Guitarist’s brief career well honored
Charlie Christian – The Genius of the Electric Guitar
Charlie Christian was not the first to amplify his guitar – Barney Kessel claims that distinction, though others have challenged the assertion.
But Christian certainly explored where others feared to venture, and is one of those credited with being on the leading edge of the bop movement.
All this in a lifetime that ended at age 25 when the six-stringer from Oklahoma died from tuberculosis. Had he lived longer, it’s hard to say how much more he would have matured musically. Thankfully, we have his sparse, though telling recorded legacy, much of which stems from the 18 months between 1939 and 1941 that Christian performed with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra.
And that’s the source of this compilation, essentially a blow-by-blow account of his days and nights with Benny in the recording studio, as well as a session with the Metronome All-Stars. Most of the material has been released previously by Columbia, but the four-disc boxed set also includes alternate takes, breakdowns and rehearsals, along with cuts that had been released previously only on a Reader’s Digest issue or on V-Disc.
The final box score shows a total of 98 tracks, 17 previously unreleased anywhere and 27 heretofore not released in the United States.
Other labels could take a lesson from Columbia in arranging alternate takes. They appear immediately after the master takes, giving you a chance to draw swift comparisons between the issued selections and those that were bypassed. Alternate takes all too often are tagged on at the end of a collection as though they were afterthoughts.
The set also underscores a personal opinion that Goodman’s sextets of that particular period were his most exciting, and not entirely because of Christian. Sideman such as trumpeter Cootie Williams, tenor saxist Georgie Auld, vibist Lionel Hampton and drummers Nick Fatool, Harry Jaeger and Dave Tough rank high in jazzdom, and no doubt Christian fed off them just as they fed off him.
The first three cuts on the initial disc set up the entire collection: “Flying Home,” “Rose Room” and “Stardust.” Hamp, Charlie and Benny cut to the core of small-group jazz with a dazzling display of virtuosity and verve. That combination keeps flags flying on 14 more cuts, including “Till Tom Special” and “Grand Slam.”
It’s all-star time on much of the second disc with Count Basie, Lester Young and Buck Clayton and the Basie rhythm section joining Benny and Charlie for a series of delicious solos and exchanges on “I Never Knew,” “Wholly Cats” and three other instrumentals. In the cast changeover that follows, Williams’ trumpet and Auld’s aggressive sax playing fit like a glove with regular Goodman sidemen in essaying items like “Royal Garden Blues” and “As Long As I Live.”
The third disc involves essentially the same personnel, and includes inspired performances of “I Found a New Baby,” a second take of “Airmail Special” that’s superior to the master, and the aptly titled “A Smooth One.” The same combination also goes into low gear for “On the Alamo” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
The final disc is a mixed bag. Breakdowns and false starts demonstrate that even the best musicians don’t always get it right the first time, but the disc also captures the essence of rehearsal sessions, with nearly 24 minutes devoted to Christian, Williams, Auld, et al. working out the wrinkles on “Benny’s Bugle.”
The real highlights of the disc, however, are “Solo Flight,” a showcase for Christian and the full orchestra; and a 21-minute jam session built around a medley of five songs when Benny G. was elsewhere. It’s an absolute gas!
In sum, admirers of the inventive and innovative Christian as well the Goodman gang will eat this one alive.
Cam Miller is a freelance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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