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January/February 2004

Woody Herman
The Woody Herman Shows, 1944-1946
Jazz Unlimited

Woody Herman's First Herd epitomized an unrepeatable phenomenon of the big-band era: popular success that was also a musical triumph. Jukeboxes and radio stations filled the air with the band's best-selling records, and Herman was on radio live every week with his sponsored program. This release has a generous sampling of air checks from those broadcasts. The excitement generated by the band and the quality of the music make clear why many musicians and listeners still point to the First Herd as a model for big bands. "Killers of the mid-'40s," trombonist Milt Bernhart called them, "the most thrilling bunch of musicians ever assembled."

The stars of the band included drummer Dave Tough, trombonist Bill Harris, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, vibraharpist Red Norvo, trumpeters Pete Candoli and Sonny Berman, bassist and cheerleader Chubby Jackson and Herman himself as leader, clarinetist, alto saxophonist and singer. This CD has a superlative version of Herman's gold record hit "Laura," with its haunting Ralph Burns arrangement. Burns and fellow arranger Neal Hefti were as responsible as the soloists for the band's depth and exhilaration. "Blowin' Up a Storm," a rousing performance of "The Good Earth" and "Superman With a Horn" represent the First Herd's commercially recorded repertoire, but the band never made studio versions of most of the tunes here. Frances Wayne sings "You've Got Me Crying Again," twice recorded in the studio and twice rejected for release, but successful in the broadcast. Mildred Bailey and Jo Stafford make guest vocal appearances, both singing superbly.

Seven of the tracks are by the Woodchoppers, Herman's little band within a band, adding to the scanty, prized Woodchoppers discography. The disc ends with a hair-raising "They Went That Away" (aka "Meshugah," aka "Sonny Speaks") with the band blazing, Berman, Phillips, Harris and Norvo outdoing themselves and Herman rambunctious on alto, sounding like Pete Brown.

Originally published in January/February 2004
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