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Cadenza: 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.

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Originally Published

Gary Giddins

Gary Giddins is the author of 12 books, including Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation (1985), Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), Weather Bird (2004), and the three-volume biography Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, of which two volumes have been published to date. Between 1974 and 2003, he wrote a regular jazz column for The Village Voice, winning six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in music criticism. From 2002 to 2008, he wrote JazzTimes‘ Cadenza column.