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Woody Herman: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-47)

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Three years ago in JazzTimes, I expressed the hope that Columbia would one day reissue The Thundering Herds, the LP era’s most comprehensive collection of the label’s 1940s Woody Herman recordings. Columbia chose, instead, to license its 1940s Herman masters to Mosaic. With its customary thoroughness, Mosaic goes well beyond The Thundering Herds. To give you an idea of what Mosaic means by complete, the seven-CD set includes nine previously unissued takes by the Woodchoppers, the incomparable nine-piece group within the First Herd. “Steps,” “Igor,” “Fan It,” “Lost Weekend,” “Pam,” “I Surrender Dear” and “Someday Sweetheart” each appear in at least one newly discovered take in addition to the original issues, along with the originals of “Four Men on a Horse” and “Nero’s Conception.”

The total of alternate takes is 35, and there are 10 pieces that Herman recorded but Columbia never released, including several splendid vocals. There are three previously unissued takes of “Panacea” alone. Except for a couple of missing masters, the Mosaic box has everything of the band that Columbia’s gifted engineers recorded during the height of its power, creativity and popularity.

So much for the accounting report-why is this bonanza important? Because in proportion to their significance, Herman and his mid- and late-’40s Herds, particularly the First, have too often been disregarded. From the time Herman and his talent scout and recruiter, bassist Chubby Jackson, began transforming the band in 1944, they embraced the changes being blown through jazz by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Indeed, as early as 1942, Herman’s open ears and advanced thinking led him to buy arrangements from Gillespie. Billy Eckstine was taking the same approach in bringing bebop values to the big band, but Herman beat Eckstine in getting his innovations to the public. He circumvented a musicians’ union recording ban by making V-discs for the military and primed the audience he would develop when World War II ended. By late 1945, when the troops were mustering out, his band was known to tens of thousands who snapped up his recordings, crowded the band’s personal appearances and made it so popular that Herman soon had his own network radio program. He extended the big-band era, which on most other fronts was dying.

Herman and Jackson populated the sections with young musicians who were advanced technically and creatively. The band played together with power, precision and swing inspired by Count Basie, but its drive exceeded the Basie band of the same period. The key soloists-Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, Sonny Berman, Red Norvo-were virtuosos. Jackson and drummer Dave Tough sparked an explosive rhythm section that amplified the soloists’ and the sections’ excitement. Tough and Norvo, at 36, were the old men of the band. A pair of gifted 22-year-old arrangers, pianist Ralph Burns and trumpeter Neal Hefti, created most of the settings. They were guided by inspiration from Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky. Trumpeter Shorty Rogers later joined them, giving Herman a formidable in-house arranging staff. The bandleader’s first-class musicianship on alto saxophone and clarinet and excellent singing by Herman and Frances Wayne (there is no finer vocal performance from that era than Wayne’s “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe”) rounded out a stunningly proficient band that had both musical depth and a spirit of abandon that sometimes stopped just short of goofiness.

The First Herd was so good Stravinsky was persuaded that it could perform his demanding “Ebony Concerto,” and if the interpretation was not everything for which the composer might have hoped, after all these years Herman’s Columbia version is still the best recording of the piece. “The Good Earth,” “Bijou,” “Northwest Passage,” “Apple Honey,” “Caldonia,” “Your Father’s Moustache,” “Wild Root,” are among the Herman instrumentals that led the late Milt Bernhart to call the band “killers of the mid-’40s, the most thrilling bunch of musicians ever assembled.”

Although it was an unqualified success by every measure of artistry and acceptance, critics, historians and many musicians have never given the First Herd its due as a force in post-swing-era music. Nor has Herman received much ungrudging critical acknowledgement of his fine playing and singing. He was not an innovator, but as a reed soloist his adaptations of Barney Bigard and Johnny Hodges are wrapped in approaches so personal that no more than a few notes are required for a listener to know who’s playing. When it comes to male vocalists in the second half of the ’40s, only Frank Sinatra surpassed Herman’s singing in phrasing, interpretation of lyrics, intonation and naturalness, and little that Sinatra recorded during that period matches Herman’s “Laura.”

The First Herd and, to only a slightly lesser extent, the Second, were enormous fun. The records capture not only the sense of joyous abandon but also the beauty that the band produced. The sheer, exciting newness comes forcefully across the decades. If you tried to absorb it all in a marathon listening session, it could wear you down unless you were mesmerized by Sonny Berman running in and out of key in one more iconoclastic trumpet solo, Bill Harris flinging outrageous trombone exclamations all over the place, Ralph Burns hiding compositional jewels in arrangements for Fran Warren and Dave Tough’s enveloping cymbal splashes. What a treat it is to have “new” solos by Berman, astonishingly innovative, and then dead at 21.

Producers Scott Wenzel and Michael Cuscuna deserve applause for the quality of every aspect of this package. Loren Schoenberg’s liner essay and session-by-session analysis make esthetic and technical matters understandable. Schoenberg has the ability to put things neatly in perspective. On Ralph Burns’ orchestration in his fantasia “Lady McGowan’s Dream,” he writes, “The unusual tonality Burns achieves throughout never sounds like cheap makeup or false exoticism, characteristics that marred many contemporaneous attempts to expand the context of jazz composition.” And on Burns’ orchestration of “Lazy Lullaby,” Herman’s tune and one of his best vocals: “It took guts to use a straight diminished chord in 1947, especially when writing for a band as ‘hip’ as Herman’s. It was redolent of the ancient days of four and five years earlier, and has now been supplanted by the II/V harmonic tyranny that still haunts the jazz vernacular even 40 years after the advent of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. How ironic that this sort of tune and this sort of arranging still sounds to many ears far less cliched than what followed it.” That’s something for today’s cookie cutter jazz mills and their graduates to think about.

By 1947, the bebop influence was firmly in place, and the Second Herd was a powerful expression of it. The band didn’t have the meshugeneh aspect of the First Herd, but it had brilliant arrangements and incredible musicianship. It had “Four Brothers” and the fourth movement of Burns “Summer Sequence,” which morphed into “Early Autumn” and made Stan Getz a star. It had the excitement of “Keen and Peachy” and “The Goof and I,” and the humor of “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out.” In Mary Ann McCall it had a great successor to Fran Warren. It had the incomparable combination of seriousness, relaxation and enjoyment that Woody Herman transmitted to his musicians and to the audience.