"...might rank with the best bands Shaw ever had."
Artie Shaw was probably one of the most charismatic yet enigmatic figures who rose to be the number one bandleader in the world during the height of the big band period of the late 1930's to the mid 1940's. Coupled with his matinee idol looks (he married eight times, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner among his wives), he was a brilliant clarinettist with a beautiful liquid tone in the upper registers and subsequently was known as “The King of the Clarinet”. During his heyday, he recorded prodigiously and his output included countless tunes that were considered as classics both then and now.
Mixed Bag is an appropriate title for CD1, as the first four songs come from what was Shaw’s last band in 1945 and the other 14 tunes were with a pick-up studio orchestra with strings. Among those first four, of particular note are The Hornet and The Glider both of which are originals by Buster Harding who later was known for his work with Count Basie and have fiery trumpet solos by Roy Eldridge. As part of the studio sessions, Shaw offered a reworking of his 1938 hit Begin the Beguine but with strings added. It turned out to be a pale comparison to the original, especially the version that was part of Shaw’s live Blue Room at the Hotel Lincoln sessions. Looking to experiment further with these recordings, Shaw then decided to hook up with a twenty-year-old singer named Mel Tormé and his little vocal group the Mel-Tones. The idea was to use them as a “section” along with the brass, reeds and strings. This combination produced something of a minor hit with What Is This Thing Called Love? Now while none of the other tracks such as Guilty, Get Out Of Town, and I've Got The Sun In The Morning reached hit status, the Mel-Tones became the precursor to such jazz-influenced vocal groups as the Four Freshmen and Manhattan Transfer. It should also be noted that Shaw is the featured soloist on all tracks, and he does some excellent work - particularly on The Anniversary Song and more interestingly on Love For Sale which was one of the first examples of overdubbing. Finally the disc finishes with a surprise, Sunny Side Up, a Shaw original which comes from his 1954 Gramercy Five and was the last one he led before his retirement.
CD2 entitled The Big Band 1949 refers to the band originally brought together by Shaw because he was having troubles with the US Internal Revenue Service and he needed to find a way to raise some money. Staffed with first-rate musicians such as Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Don Fagerquist and Jimmy Raney among others, this was a bop-inspired unit that lasted only a few months because audiences were turned off by the band's arrangements. In retrospect this seems unusual as the arrangers in question such as Tadd Dameron, Johnny Mandel, Gene Roland and George Russell reached iconic status in later years. Among the tracks showcased here, Tadd Dameron contributed the boppy Fred’s Delight, Johnny Mandel arranged Krazy Kat, George Russell offered the polytonal Similau and Gene Roland was front and centre with Aesop’s Foibles.
As expected, Shaw’s clarinet sails over the ensemble playing with his usual virtuosity and he takes up the lion’s share of the solo space. Most of the tenor solos are by Al Cohn although Zoot Sims can be heard to good effect on I Cover the Waterfront.
It was fortunate that Shaw decided to bring this group into the studio during its brief history, as these tracks appear to be the complete recorded output of this organization which might rank with the best bands Shaw ever had.
The original sides were released by MusicMasters, and Nimbus has done a terrific job with the digital re-mastering. In addition the liner notes are especially comprehensive.
Pierre Giroux, Musicweb-international.com