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By David Greenberger

Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums

Dark Developments (Orange Twin)

With releases stretching across a couple decades now, Vic Chesnutt is a bit like an American Robyn Hitchcock. They don’t sound like each other, but Vic, like Robyn across the sea, favors recording quickly, frequently, and with a wide variety of collaborators and accompanists. Their similarity is given further credence by dint of each man’s ongoing lyrical explorations. Though strikingly different from one another, they do both build their songs around idiosyncratic and poetic wordplay, using obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, and whatever they can bend into compelling phrases and fractured narratives.

Vic’s latest was recorded with a sprawling ensemble in the attic studio of his Athens, Ga., home. Working with an existing band, as he has done in the past, afforded a lived-in foundation for the sessions. Given the sly smarts of Elf Power, there’s a potent sense of shared experience and musical hijinks that bubbles through the set. The nine songs are filled with images of foreboding and decay, as politicians wobble across the stage, weather turns mean, and the silhouettes of Dickensian characters cast shadows across the landscape.

Humi (Hugh Hopper & Yumi Hara Cawkwell)

Dune (Moon June)

Like the hybrid word they’ve created to be their name, this duo of Hugh Hopper and Yumi Hara Cawkwell are like to conjoined musical syllables. Depending on the tonalities utilized, as well as the propulsion utilized, the results can vary significantly over the course of these primarily improvised pieces. On the eight-minute “Shiranui,” Cawkwell’s voice and Hopper’s bass and electronics are given plenty of room for silences to embrace them, elevating the simplest of movements. Conversely, the closing track, “Futa,” has passages with so much punctuation that it sounds like a thought that can’t find its proper shape. The most stirring aspect about these 10 pieces is how they build their identity on the confident resonance of each of the player’s instrumental tones. With Hopper being the longer known of the two (Cawkwell has been a presence on the London experimental-music scene since the beginning of this century), it’s always a treat to hear his recognizable sound find ever new ways to change and explore.

—David Greenberger

The Benny Goodman Orchestra

The Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958) (Mosaic)

Alongside Mosaic’s mission to present older jazz recordings in the best possible sound with scholarly annotations has been a dogged pursuit of completism. Which is great for an obsessive collector like me, who wants access to every scrap of a particular artist’s output.

This has drawbacks. So much of my Complete Glenn Miller (Bluebird, not Mosaic) is made up of shitty vocals that I rarely revisit more than a few terrific instrumentals. Few big bands went unfettered by such dreck.

Mosaic has taken this into account and revised their mission slightly. The new Benny Goodman set, covering recordings he made after his glory days at Victor, brings to light seven CDs’ worth of material the clarinetist recorded for Columbia (and its cousin, Okeh) between 1939 and 1958. There are chronological gaps: the early-’40s recording ban, a jump to Capitol. There are format elisions: the small-group sides, well covered in Charlie Christian sets. And now, with use of “Classic” instead of “Complete” in the box set’s title, there are interstices of discernment: the vocal sides, which featured Helen Forrest or Peggy Lee, and which, as the producer notes, already are CD-available.

The high point here are arrangements by Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell, pushing the concept of the big band sound into the bop era, discovering new textures in the standard brass-reeds-and-rhythm instrumental forces.

Turn immediately to Disc Two and listen to “Benny Rides Again,” an Eddie Sauter chart from 1940 that draws from the drums-and-brass furor that made “Sing, Sing, Sing” such a success and takes it to surprising places. The hallmark Fletcher Henderson call-and-response patterns are there, but they’re thicker, more plangent. And the number opens with a wonderful growly noodling by trumpeter Cootie Williams, taking a break from the Ellington band. And this set contains an alternate take that truly is alternate, showing some very different ideas not only in the solos but also the construction of the piece itself.

“Clarinet a la King” is the better-known track, another Sauter accomplishment. Mosaic gives you no fewer than six versions, offering subtle but fascinating differences. Also in the Sauter realm is “Ramona,” distinguished here by a rare Goodman breakdown track that must have given the persnickety leader conniptions.

Powell was a teenage jazz-piano encyclopedia when he joined the band. He could swing like a madman in any style, including a voice of his own that he improbably would take into classical music, becoming a distinguished composer-professor. But that was far in the future when he was comping so delightfully behind his own arrangement of “String of Pearls,” sending the Miller chestnut into what I can’t help but believe is a different interpretation of its title.

After some late-40s years away, the band return in 1951 with a number of ’30s alumni at the stands, including Chris Griffin and Hymie Schertzer, and with other Swing Era veterans like Billy Butterfield and Bob Haggart giving new voices to old Goodman charts. Songs like “When Buddha Smiles” and “King Porter Stomp” get new life and, despite some turgid Goodman with Strings sessions (tastefully remanded to the end of Disc Seven), bring the collection to a tasteful close.

As with all Mosaic releases, it’s been meticulously remastered, rescuing even some of the more neglected alternate takes from audio oblivion, and Loren Schoenberg’s notes are a model of insight and analysis. This may seem like a perfect holiday gift for an aged relative, and you’ll no doubt score big points. My advice? Steal it back.

—B.A. Nilsson

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