Various Artists: The Savory Collection 1935-1940 (Mosaic)

Review of six-CD set of historic jazz radio broadcasts recorded by engineer Bill Savory

Cover of The Savory Collection 1935-1940
Cover of The Savory Collection 1935-1940

Certain collections of music are so rich and deep that it feels like a listener could almost swim in them. This six-disc, 108-track set feels bottomless. It also represents one of the greatest provenance accounts in all of jazz. Someone ought to write a short story about it.

Bill Savory was a reticent New York recording engineer in the 1930s and 1940s who had a cool nocturnal habit: While transcribing radio broadcasts for foreign distribution, he liked to multitask, flipping on his recorders and capturing what was going out over the airwaves from live jazz-club performances that were only meant to be heard once. That is, if there had been no Bill Savory.

We could order a lot of beers and have a lot of passionate talks about what’s best and most valuable here. Here’s a whistle-wetter: a version of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” cut seven months after its jazz epoch-shaping studio counterpart, and frankly better. At the earlier date, Hawkins had hit upon something, but now what was hit upon has been refined, sacrificing none of its immediacy as it extends its domain, roots plunging deeper into soil.

Given where jazz was played and where Savory was at, most of the recordings come from NYC, but there are others from the nightclub temples of Boston and Chicago. Fats Waller blazes at the charmingly billed The Yacht Club, as if a regatta were simultaneously unwinding outside. He had no idea this was being recorded, he’s playing only for the patrons of the evening, but his set selections underscore an epiphany central to the artistry of these men and women: The workaday gig is also the all-timer gig, the next entry in a progression of them. Nothing is throwaway, all can last. That is some doozy art.

Speaking of which: A WNEW jam session features Basie tenor sax stud Herschel Evans a mere month before his death, and when you hear the power coming through his horn, you wonder how the Reaper got up the balls to approach him. Rival/partner Lester Young, meanwhile, blows a blues so pure on “Lady Be Good” with the Basie band that you just about giggle that these two cats were somehow in the same unit. These players always belong to their moment entirely even as they transcend it, with Savory acting as recording scribe for a kind of jazz Bible.

Swing is the ostensible core of the collection, but what we’re hearing is jazz morphing, nightly. Drummer Chick Webb’s case as a sticksman and prime mover par excellence is furthered, Ella Fitzgerald is moving swing singing into an era of vocal Modernism, and if you don’t think the John Kirby sextet could hold its own in a battle of the bands versus Coltrane’s quartet or either Miles quintet, well, let’s line up these recordings with theirs and have everyone throw down. Thank you, Mr. Savory, for your hobby. You have provided a plunge into a lost sea of history. And you have done every corner of our human condition a massive solid.

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