The material on CD 1 dates from the latter half of Artie Shaw’s career as a bandleader, which ended with his retirement in 1954. Always presenting tasteful and often unusually deep interpretations of big-band jazz and dance music, and featuring his exquisite and frequently profound clarinet improvisations, Shaw’s career climaxed in his rise to superstar status as the most popular musician in North America at the height of the Swing Era in 1939.
These marvellous performances are culled from Artie Shaw’s final recordings as an instrumentalist. It is crystal clear that he retired at the height of his powers. Throughout these pieces, his playing is a joy to the ear and the mind, and his unique sound on the clarinet has seldom if ever been better captured. Shaw was still in his prime as a leader as well: this last Gramercy Five was a collective of the first order with a sound and style of its own, attuned to the times but never falling into the trap of trendiness.
This collection of Artie Shaw big band recordings comes from his brief association with the Musicraft label. Having assembled and broken up several earlier units, this edition, heard in recordings made between 1945 and 1946, is more of an arranger's band than one that features many soloists, other than the leader. During this period of Shaw's career, he was constantly changing the instrumentation of his band and making personnel substitutions. Fellow Musicraft artist Mel Tormé and his group the Mel-Tones are added on some tracks, though this was a studio relationship exclusively and they were not a part of Shaw's organization. The innovative blend of strings, voices and brass in the swinging arrangement of "What Is This Thing Called Love" is the highlight of the vocal selections, along with an updated instrumental version of the clarinetist's earlier hit, "Begin the Beguine." The only reservation about this compilation is that several tracks are abruptly faded or even truncated.
One of jazz's finest clarinetists, Artie Shaw never seemed fully satisfied with his musical life, constantly breaking up successful bands and running away from success. While Count Basie and Duke Ellington were satisfied to lead just one orchestra during the swing era, and Benny Goodman (due to illness) had two, Shaw led five, all of them distinctive and memorable.
Here lie the last of the Victor recordings by Artie Shaw and his orchestra, dating from July and November of 1945. The first nine titles are charming big band dance numbers. A lot of that charm comes straight up from Dodo Marmarosa's piano and Barney Kessel's guitar, through the trumpet of Roy Eldridge and out of Artie Shaw's elegant clarinet. Those are four good reasons to check these records out, up close. Anybody who loves Dodo Marmarosa needs to hear these recordings in order to be able to appreciate how this young man interacted with a big band. Fortunately, there are only a few vocals by syrupy singer Halsey Stevens…
As a rule, record companies don't give artists the chance to pick the songs when a boxed set is assembled. They might ask the person who writes the liner notes to interview the artist, or they might even have the artist write the liner notes. But the label, not the artist, usually chooses the material. Self Portrait is an exception; when this five-CD, 95-track boxed set was assembled in 2001, a 91-year-old Artie Shaw was given a rare chance to make the selections himself and comment on them. And for those who are seriously into the clarinetist, it is fascinating to see what he chooses. Self Portrait, which spans 1936-1954, contains most of his essential swing, era hits, including "Stardust," "Begin the Beguine," "Frenesi," and his ominous signature tune, "Nightmare."
Conversing with Artie Shaw – as Loren Schoenberg and I did in preparation for annotating these further treasures from his last recordings – is an exhilarating experience. This is because this master of the clarinet excels at making connections. Just as he always knew how to get from one note the next in such a way that the result was a cohesive statement – a story, as jazz musicians used to put it – he knows how to link one idea to another, to make allusions, to place things in context, within a frame of reference that ranges wide and far. Artie Shaw always told a story when he played, and he had that sound – immediately, unmistakably identifiable as his and his alone. It is a treat to hear him tell us some timeless stories we hadn’t heard before. Dan Morgenstern.