Pilgrim’s Progress

When he had the wind in his sails, which was pretty often during a tragically curtailed career (he died at age 33 from complications incurred in a car accident), Chu Berry was a terror. Few musicians combine, as effortlessly and consistently as he, fearless aggression with sensible demeanor. Jazz in the prewar era was often a high-wire act. If all you got to show for yourself in a three-minute record was eight or 16 bars, you wanted to make the most of it, a situation that called for creativity, coordination and concentration. Berry took every cue as a challenge, restively running up against the waves, not unlike his most constant and inspired partner, the firebrand Roy Eldridge. We follow each of them with the slightly inflamed pleasure we get watching a great athlete, certain that he is having the time of his life and vicariously sharing in his daring.

Mosaic has released Classic Chu Berry Columbia and Victor Sessions, an anthology of the tenor saxophonist’s best work, excepting a 1935 Red Norvo session for Columbia, which is in Mosaic’s Bunny Berigan box; Count Basie’s “Lady Be Good” (on Decca); and the indispensable Commodores (decisive alliances with Eldridge and Hot Lips Page), which Mosaic released long ago as part of its in toto presentation of that label’s catalog, now way overdue for a reissue series. Don’t miss this one. If you have been collecting jazz records for any length of time, you almost certainly have some of its contents—sessions by Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Wingy Manone, Lionel Hampton, Henry Allen, Teddy Wilson, Mildred Bailey and others. Get it anyway. Chu (pardon the informality, but who can resist that name?) recorded for only eight years, and this set is both a panorama of the 1930s and a Pilgrim’s Progress with a hero who brakes for nobody.

Context counts for a lot in these comprehensive box sets; most of them are de facto storage bins to be rooted around in. But sometimes, as happens here, they unveil a compelling narrative. This one would be a lot more compelling if most of the alternative takes had been shunted to a separate disc. For the very patient listener, even they may add to the suspense generated by the nominal star, prone to tweaking his ideas on each outing. I’m not that patient; the value of three takes of “Papa’s in Bed with His Britches On” escapes me. Papa would do better to have a remote control in hand. Still, the upshot of 178 tracks, 34 of them alternates and breakdowns, is a vivid, twisty, usually beguiling portrait of a contradictory era when swing was a way of life, masking Depression, discontent and the only fear we had to fear.

As linchpin, Berry valiantly stalks the perfect solo while documenting the jazzman’s travail, lending himself to settings that range from sublime (Krupa’s 1936 Victors, for example) to “A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird,” involving not only swing, but also New Orleans polyphony, ballads, rhythm and blues, and novelties—all in a day’s work. Occasionally, he was given free rein, as in his rendering, with Cab Calloway‘s band, of “Ghost of a Chance.” This performance is purposefully in the tradition of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” though it isn’t in that class—what is? As a rule Chu is more affecting at brighter tempos, like Henderson’s “Blue Lou” and “Stealin’ Apples,” Bailey’s “Lover Man” and “Thanks for the Memories,” Manone’s “Annie Laurie” and “Limehouse Blues,” and Calloway’s sleek “Bye Bye Blues.”

The great thing about “Ghost of a Chance” and other ballads (Calloway’s rapturous “Lonesome Nights” is exceptional), beyond the penetrating beauty and insights of his ideas, is that we get to hear Berry think in slow motion, choosing his moves with canny deliberation, weighing one gambit against another. When he throws in a glissando or riffs that come straight from Hawkins, they underscore the unmistakable originality of his timbre and the governing framework of his solos.

Berry is always conscious of the specific environment in which he solos. Henderson’s “Blue Lou” is in the major key, but it opens with a two-note riff in the minor mode. Berry begins his solo by echoing that riff, increasing the drama of the performance; at the bridge, his rhythmic attack seems to trigger the bassist into a sturdy walking figure. On Teddy Wilson’s magnificent “Blues in C Sharp Minor,” the great Israel Crosby (all of 17 years old) requires no such trigger; his bass ostinato is the heartbeat of the piece, and Chu draws from it a tapestry of dark emotions. Both these sides pair Chu with Eldridge, and they have their first face-off on Putney Dandridge’s “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” Berry rides the whirlwind on that, a preview of Krupa’s euphoric session, where everyone generates serious adrenalin, despite that dreadful tune “Mutiny in the Parlor.” If Chu, Roy, Gene and Benny Goodman in full throttle don’t raise your temperature, you’re reading the wrong magazine.

As guest of honor, Chu is invariably the one we keep waiting on, no matter how great the other players. He rarely disappoints. If the kettle is hot, he brings it to a boil; if it’s boiling, he makes it brim over. Charlie Parker apparently felt that way the first time he saw him in Kansas City. His young wife Rebecca remembered his excitement and her surprise, a few days later, when she found him in the living room, “blowing his brains out,” inspired by Chu’s solo on Henderson’s “Stealin’ Apples,” which he played repeatedly. Two years later, Parker named his firstborn Leon after Leon “Chu” Berry. Berry got his much-misspelled moniker (Choo, Chew) from musicians, because he chewed on his mouthpiece or had Fu Manchu facial hair or both. He earned the name all over again chewing up the changes on Lionel Hampton’s “Sweethearts on Parade,” a 1939 Chu extravaganza that is a candidate for his finest ever recording—a good place to start.

Mosaic’s package is characteristically attractive, with fine full-bleed black-and-white photographs, excellent biographical and critical liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, and superb transfers. The sound is bright and real—don’t hesitate to give it juice. People often treat this music as nostalgia, as if they pined for the world that produced it. Screw that. That world was roiled by a Depression; lynching was virtually legal; the airwaves were flooded with racist and anti-Semitic ranting that makes Don Imus sound like Gandhi; the world was readying itself for war, the Holocaust and nuclear annihilation. Only the music was supreme and the music is still here—there is nothing nostalgic about it. JT

Originally published in July/August 2007

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