Thursday, June 23, 2005

Being Like Bop

I’ve been listening to some of the remarkable CDs newly released by Anthony Barnett's AB Fable label, documenting the development of jazz violin from the early days of swing through the be-bop era almost to the present day. There are so many CDs in the series that it’s hard to know where to start one’s listening tour. Before this, I’d already listened to the Fable Stuff Smith recordings, which give an excellent overview of the work of that great violinist, with authentic remasterings of the original tracks, and also the Ray Perry disc, which makes available recordings that have been long out of circulation. Now it’s possible to become acquainted with the work of other violinists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The list of names and artists is a formidable one. In addition to Smith and Perry, it includes Eddie South, Ray Nance (with Ben Webster), Joe Kennedy, Ginger Smock, John Frigo, Dick Wetmore, Harry Lookofsky, Stéphane Grappelli, Svend Asmussen, Gene Orloff, Elek Bacsik, André Hodeir, Jean-Luc Ponty and many, many others.

These are tracks to listen to one or two at a time. There is so much music here that it would need weeks, months, and even years to give it all the attention it requires and deserves. Though unfamiliar, the Ben Webster/Ray Nance recordings are obviously classics, and the same can be said of the wonderful Ginger Smock sessions. The most interesting release, though, is the huge 2-CD collection of “Odds and Svends”, with rare or previously unknown recordings by American and European bebop artists like Joe Kennedy, Dick Wetmore, Harry Lookofsky, Odd Wentzel Larsen and Andre Hodeir. The content is uneven, for some of the tracks are so scratchy as to try one’s patience at times, but the performances are always genuine and alive – and it has to be said that most of the recordings have been preserved or resurrected with great skill. On the “Bownus” CD, issued to subscribers to the whole series of CDs, there are also some previously unobtainable but essential tracks, such as the ones by the Dick Wetmore Quartet (on “Blues for Esquire”, in addition to violin, Wetmore plays Bobby Hackett’s cornet, of which he is custodian), the Harry Lookofsky Septet, and Jean-Luc Ponty with the Jack Diéval Sextet. It would have been nice to have some of the Max Roach Double Quartet recordings, but perhaps it was difficult to obtain permission to reproduce them.

The “Odds & Svends” CDs – grouped under the title “I Like Be I Like Bop” – are accompanied by a 96-page booklet, including photographs, which gives a history of jazz violin from swing to bebop, written by Anthony Barnett. The essay is comprehensive and informative, but I have a small gripe about the format of the booklet: the print in which it’s set is just a little too small for comfort. I guess there’s not much that could be done about this, since the aim was apparently to cram in as much historical analysis and musicological information as possible, and for that one is grateful. But it would be good to see the text reissued in standard book format.

Though it’s not often realized nowadays, the violin – and viola – were important instruments during the formative years of jazz. Many of the great musicians who became famous on other – usually blowing – instruments, began on the violin, and violin sections continued to be a feature of the popular music scene until the Swing Era. One of Artie Shaw's bands was known as his "Strings" orchestra. The new Fable CDs go one step further than most conventional jazz musicology in showing that, far from being eclipsed in the swing and bebop era, the violin continued to be an instrument on which exciting and creative music was made. The relative neglect by the major recording companies of the instrument and its players may have had more to do with commercial image-making and consumer policy than with music as such. At all events, it’s to be hoped that the release of these recordings, and others like them, together with the prominence currently being attained by violinists and violists of the stature of Regina Carter, John Blake Jr., Darol Anger, Tanya Kalmanovitch and others, may bring string instruments back into the centre stage of jazz performance where they belong.

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