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Joe Venuti/Eddie Lang: The Classic Columbia and Okeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang

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illustration of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang

Violinist Giuseppe “Joe” Venuti may not have been born on the boat that brought his family from Italy, as he liked to claim in later life, but here’s one thing that is true: he and his boyhood friend, guitarist Salvatore Massaro aka Eddie Lang, were among the first virtuosos of the Jazz Age.

Venuti and Lang heard early Original Dixieland Jazz Band records and were drawn to the hot sound. Among the white players of the era, only Bix Beiderbecke rivals their importance, and while neither Venuti nor Lang could challenge Bix as a soloist, both created highly evolved hot styles on instruments that were almost completely undeveloped within jazz.

With the enthusiasm of youth, Venuti and Lang worked out fiddle-guitar duos so challenging that it took years to master them. These stand as examples of great music that, even now, is far enough off the beaten track that it seems amazing that it ever happened at all. These duets are classics of the period and among the most perfect performances ever recorded.

The twosome’s influence extends far beyond jazz, too: Western swing fiddlers copied Venuti’s licks note-for-note, and many a hillbilly fiddle-guitar team tried to emulate the duo. Venuti forged the first hot violin style with an attractive light tone, impeccable pitch and time, and bowing that was always precise even when vigorous. One could argue that Lang made even more significant contributions to jazz than Venuti: the single-handed development of an extremely sophisticated back-up style, the replacement of the tenor banjo by the guitar in the rhythm section and some of the first steps toward single-note soloing all make powerful arguments for his case. Jimmy Blanton’s virtual invention of the bass’ role was a later but comparable achievement.

Lang and Venuti arrived in New York in 1926 and quickly became fixtures in the studios, appearing on a dizzying number of sessions that ran the gamut from hopeless corn to classic blues. Lang, especially, was the ideal studio musician, able to work up brilliant back-up parts and even arrange for other instruments on the fly. Venuti preferred live gigs leading dance bands to faceless section work, but still managed enough recordings as leader to fill five pages in Brian Rust’s discography, Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942).

This 8-CD Mosaic set aims to cover all the jazz and blues recordings for the Columbia labels that featured Venuti and/or Lang, with some exceptions made that would duplicate the Mildred Bailey and Bix Beiderbecke-Frankie Trumbauer-Jack Teagarden Mosaic sets. Only recordings to which Venuti and Lang make substantial contributions are included, and no doubt there will be differences of opinion about what should be considered substantial as well as where to draw the line between jazz and hot dance music. Lovers of Boyd Senter and his Senterpedes will be disappointed, as will Emmett Miller devotees; sessions by these bands, which included Lang, are not included. I have no serious complaints, however, since trying to decide what to include using the criteria cited would be like trying to slice soup.

Mosaic’s favored chronological sequencing is often less than ideal for listening, but here it helps place the variety of the sessions in perspective. Workmanlike efforts by bands like Jack Pettis’ follow spectacular duos; guitar solos are followed by semihot groups featuring forgettable crooners; and at one point we go from Victoria Spivey to Eva Taylor to Ukulele Ike to Lang’s ill-considered “Lilac Time” to a great Venuti small group.

Listeners who cut their teeth on Columbia’s wonderful Stringing the Blues box set and have successfully supplemented it over the years with LPs from Parlophone, Swaggie, Yazoo, TOM, etc, will want to check out these remastered and repackaged tunes: their sound is enormously improved, and hearing some of the less-than-great tracks in the context of their chronology adds considerably to our understanding of how Venuti and particularly Lang approached different situations.

Lang’s death in early 1933 was a huge blow not only to Venuti and to his principal employer, Bing Crosby, but also to the scene in general. Some of the sessions Venuti participated in here from later that year, after the guitarist’s death, would have benefited from Lang’s harmonic finesse and rock-solid drive. Still, the recordings from Oct. 2 by a group that included Venuti, Dick McDonough, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and Joe Sullivan are fantastic, and far looser in feel than the music of the earlier decade.

Listeners who just want a taste of this music should pick up the two JSP CDs that contain the best Venuti-Lang small-group work, including Victors beyond the scope of this release. But anyone who’s a dedicated fan should really consider The Classic Columbia and OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Besides the great fiddle-guitar duos, high points include the beautiful collaborations between Lang and bluesman Lonnie Johnson, numerous first-rate Venuti-led small groups and cameos by Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. A lot of the rest of this box set might or might not be termed great, depending on one’s affinity for the period, and it’s fair to say that only determined collectors will have heard very much of this stuff, such as the brief but fantastic pairing of Lang and George Van Eps on “You’re Simply Delish” by Smith Ballew and His Orchestra. And virtually no one has heard the few previously unissued tracks, which include a couple of gems.

The last CD includes examples of Venuti’s insane sense of humor, the “Onyx Club Revue” being a particularly hilarious example of schoolboy silliness and musical sarcasm. We also get to hear Crosby crack up while trying to wax the beyond-banal “We’re a Couple of Soldiers, My Baby and Me,” and, best of all, a recording made when the mikes were left on to capture between-takes conversation by Lang, Venuti, Ruth Etting and Colonel Martin “The Gimp” Snyder, among others. Snyder provides convincing evidence that booking agents have always been an alien species, but hearing Lang’s raspy voice is moving; it was his hoarseness that led his friends to insist he should seek medical assistance. One apparent misdiagnosis and one botched tonsillectomy later, jazz had lost one of its pioneers.

The great liner notes from Mike Peters, Marty Grosz, Richard M. Sudhalter and Scott Wenzel are up to Mosaic’s standards. Guitarists will enjoy the insights into Lang’s work these fine musicians offer, and while there are rich Venuti stories here, the portrait of him that emerges is far more complex and compelling than the one-dimensional clown prince of the Jazz Age that he is sometimes painted to be.