Chesnutt, Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums
Developments (Orange Twin)
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.
(Hugh Hopper & Yumi Hara Cawkwell)
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.
Benny Goodman Orchestra
Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions
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
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
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.
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.