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Benny Goodman: A Carnegie Hall Tribute

by B.A. Nilsson on November 16, 2011 · 1 comment


As the band prepared to launch into “Life Goes to a Party,” drummer Brooks Tegler looked around the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and murmured, “I love this room.” The hall being the hall, the words carried, a mark of its lively acoustic nature and the reason an ensemble like this can fill the room with unamplified sound. Which was one of the biggest joys of hearing Tegler and crew blast through their version of one of jazz history’s most iconic events. The overtones of reeds and brass are wonderfully abrasive when unplugged, and even the acoustic guitar, usually a band’s quietest voice, came through nicely in Ted Gottsegen’s able hands.

By the beginning of 1938, superstar Benny Goodman was persuaded to bring his band to Carnegie Hall for a successful concert that was recorded and then forgotten. Acetates of the recording turned up 12 years later, and the subsequent LP release became the best-selling jazz album of all time. Re-creating the event means going up against the legacy of a host of celebrated players: not only such Goodman-band stars as Gene Krupa and Harry James but also guest artists Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Bobby Hackett and others. Which means you don’t want to make a museum piece of the concert by trying to emulate its every nuance.

Tegler’s ensemble stayed true to the charts but generally went their own soloistic ways. During “One O’Clock Jump,” clarinetist Joe Midiri played what Goodman played, satisfying those who, like me, grew up with the original recording and have an embarrassingly note-for-note knowledge of its details. After that, he went his own way, skillfully true to the Goodman style, lofting his instrument to cut through the orchestra’s wail when the big numbers reached their peaks. But it was in the small-group segments that Midiri really shined. His brother Paul, a trombonist in the ensemble, switched to vibes, a la Lionel Hampton, for such quartet songs as “Avalon,” “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm” and the truly dizzying “Dizzy Spells.”

With Tegler on drums and pianist Rossano Sportiello, the performers honored the concert’s history in these numbers by finding fresh excitement in their swing-suffused voices. “I Got Rhythm,” the finish of the first half, brought down the house, and if “Dizzy Spells” didn’t quite take off as it might have, it’s only because the original is so difficult that it needs to be absorbed into the body as only a steadily touring ensemble can manage.

That was also the challenge for the band as a whole, a challenge generally but not completely met. The charts, written by craftsmen like Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy, call for tight punctuation and clever call-and-response. I’m suspecting that a lack of whip-cracking rehearsal, combined with the lively sound of the hall, kept some of the moments from being as crackling clean as possible.

In the medium-tempo “Sometimes I’m Happy,” they were superb. It’s a gorgeous arrangement featuring muted brass, and trumpeter Randy Reinhart took a deft solo reflecting the legacy of the original soloist—Bunny Berigan on the 1935 recording. The Goodman band members were kids back in the day, and young tenor saxist Patrick Breiner proved that youth can still compete in the swing arena with his solo. Trumpeter Kenny McGee channeled the spirit of Louis Armstrong in “Shine,” one of six numbers in a “History of Jazz” now decades farther from that history than it was in 1938. Who, after all, now remembers Ted Lewis? The Ellington salute, “Blue Reverie,” featured Don Lerman coaxing a Harry Carney sound out of his baritone sax and Anita Thomas going up against the Johnny Hodges legacy on soprano sax.

Trombonist Harvey Tibbs and bassist Tommy Cecil were among the soloists in a “Honeysuckle Rose” jam session, where chameleon Sportiello’s deft stride piano reminded us that he’d channeled Basie in “One O’Clock Jump” and Wilson in the small groups. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg showed a fat Satchmo sound on “Loch Lomond,” in which she also took the vocal, very much in the style of the day. And she was back for the silly novelty “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” the onetime popularity of which reminds us that discriminating taste needn’t always intrude.

The concert was padded with unnecessary narration, driving it to nearly three hours in length. This is the kind of thing that turns a lively event into a museum piece, destroying its momentum along the way. A few comments after intermission would have been more than enough.

The big number, true to form, was “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a brass-and-drums showpiece in which the dynamo Tegler got it absolutely right. I’ve seen many drummers tackle this number (Connie Kay was the best), but few know how to drive this train. Tenor man Scott Silbert gave us an original solo, trumpeter McGee more or less re-created the Harry James solo—so what would the pianist do? Jess Stacy’s unexpected spotlight in the original has been judged by many the greatest-ever jazz piano solo, saluted in such unlikely places as a John Updike story. Sportiello wisely avoided a re-creation, but brought forth a feeling of Stacy’s melancholy, Debussy-esque feeling before the piece roared to its climactic finish.

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