February 28, 2024

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CD review: Benny Goodman – Absolutely The Best 2022: Video, CD cover

Two complementary issues, each an anthology of Benny Goodman’s classical playing, but exploring it from different angles. In the one case, the performance of modern works with which he had a special association; in the other the performance of standard classical works of chamber music with a prominent clarinet part.

In 1939, when the first 78s of Goodman and the Budapest Quartet playing the Mozart Quintet appeared on HMV, it was perhaps possible to write about Goodman as a new classical soloist without reference to his jazz background of which the writer, if classically orientated, might reasonably have then been in complete ignorance. Perhaps those opinions were the only totally unbiased ones ever printed (unbiased in either of the two possible directions); for it is certainly not possible today, writing about classical playing, to be in similar total ignorance of Goodman as a jazz player.

As such, you can love his playing, if you have a taste for swinging, in-tune, musicianly jazz; or dislike it, if you have a taste for earlier or for later jazz; or hate it you have no taste for any jazz at all. I may as well come clean: I do have a taste for swinging, in-tune, musicianly jazz, and have greatly enjoyed Goodman’s own playing (not always his bands, and sometimes not his colleagues) since well before I took to listening half the night (with a kind of stethoscope attachment), totally enthralled by repeated playings of the first Goodman Trio 78s.

Yet I do not believe that there is anything unnatural in Goodman having been also a first-class solist; indeed, it seems much odder that so many musicians (including, I know, many superlative ones!) respond only to one field or the other. Goodman, though: I am not quite sure which field actually represented his primary interest. For consider: he was not brought up in New Orleans, going out with the marching bands and playing in bouncing, joyous dance halls; he was brought up learning classical clarinet at school. Until, that is, the day that he first heard Frank Teschemacher (!) or Ted Lewis (!!); and then the bait was swallowed, and (pace Jimmy Doersy!) the history of relatively sophisticated jazz clarinet was born.

But not to the exclusion of classical clarinet. It is history that in Goodman’s case jazz clarinet took over; and later, with an even firmer grip, the fronting of large, highly danceable bands, of which the mushrooming success (could we have won the war without Glenn Miller?) made it increasingly difficult for Goodman to return to his first love.

But in touch with is first love he most certainly kept, with results that are illustrated by the first record listed above. Two of the included works, the Copland Concerto and the Bartok Contrasts, Goodman commissioned (a very good use for the money churned in by churning out all those riffs!); these receive excellent performances all round. There is every possible degree of authenticity, not merely with the respective composers having composed, in the first place, in some degree of collaboration with what Goodman wanted, but also with the respective composers directing on the sessions: Copland from the conducting chair, Bartok from the piano chair.

The other two works spring from different circumstances: they were commissioned by Woody Herman to suit his own band, and to suit his own clarinet-playing. By misfortune, or misjudgement, both the solo part clarinet parts were simply totally inadequate in projection for the commissioning soloist: if Paganini was somewhat disappointed with Harold in Italy, Woody Herman was more than somewhat disapppointed with the Bernstein and the Stravinsky. He gave up, understandably, commissioning any further new works from classical composers; but not before Bernstein had given us the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (which the Herman band, at least, must have enjoyed), and Stravinsky the Ebony Concerto (which the band probably did not: if so, I am with them).

The two Teldec illustrate the other side of Goodman’s lifetime association with the classics. Three of the works are standard masterpieces of chamber music; the Weber is not quite this, allotting an unreasonably large share of the limelight (Woody Herman would have been pleased!) to the clarinet part, giving more of the effect of a chamber concerto for solo clarinet and string quartet: and what is wrong with that (except for the title)? Goodman certainly makes it sound right; his colleagues do not go on strike; and the upshot is four classical performances of the first class.
Throughout the recorded quality of both issues, LP and CD, is also very good; a small rider, though, might well qualify response to the Brahms Trio, which has from time to time mild, unidentifiable background noises: distant conversation, possibly, or a restless player seated uncomfortably. But if either group of four works is a group you want, do not hesitate: these are all splendid performances, and not only on Benny Goodman’s part.

1. These Foolish Things
2. Let’s Dance
3. Stompin’ At The Savoy
4. Somebody Stole My Gal
5. You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me
6. Sent For You Yesterday (And Here You Come Today)
7. Close Your Eyes
8. You’re Blasé
9. The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise
10. I Want To Be Happy
11. Mission To Moscow
12. King Porter Stomp
13. That’s A Plenty
14. And The Angels Sing
15. Goodbye
16. Sing, Sing, Sing

Benny Goodman - Absolutely The Best (2022)

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