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Woody Herman: The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954) (Mosaic)

A review of the clarinetist's seven-disc set

Woody Herman, The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954)
The cover of The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954)

Woody Herman aficionados will know from this set’s title what it doesn’t contain. The second Thundering Herd, Herman’s 1947–49 bebop-laced (“Four Brothers”) orchestra, made all its records for Columbia and Capitol. The presence here of the First and Third Herds, along with some sides from “The Band That Plays the Blues” and the Woodchoppers small(er) band, makes the Four Brothers’ absence all the more glaring.

Yet this absence may be the seven-disc set’s linchpin. Hearing the before-and-after of that innovative ensemble—much of which was obscure until now—reveals that Herman was always attuned to jazz’s cutting edge. The original orchestra’s final two sessions (in November 1943 and January 1944) are still those of Swing Era hitmakers; ’44’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” was among Herman’s biggest sellers. Yet “Do Nothin’” also demonstrates that Herman had taken Ellington’s forward-thinking cues. He took Ellington’s star saxophonist Ben Webster too, whose gruff swagger invigorates “Who Dat Up Dere?” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” (On “Crying Sands,” clarinetist Herman does a pretty fair Johnny Hodges impression on alto.) His influences are similarly upfront on “Basie’s Basement.”

Following these two would give the First Herd—which began in spring 1944 with the arrival of trumpeter Neal Hefti, tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, and especially arranger Ralph Burns—progressive jazz bona fides. That’s audible in radio transcriptions of “Ingie Speaks” (with a wondrous Hy White guitar solo), “Blue Lullaby,” and “Saturday Night,” and sealed with the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” at the Herd’s 1946 Carnegie Hall concert.

Four discs in, the set skips ahead to 1951, when the Third Herd arrived at MGM. Their first outing there, a collaboration with fellow forward-thinker Billy Eckstine, is surprisingly vanilla. But though bebop hadn’t been lucrative for Herman, he continued experimenting with it, hiring trumpeter Shorty Rogers, trombonist Carl Fontana, pianist/arranger Nat Pierce, and flutist Sam Staff to provide that flavor. A cover of George Shearing’s “Bop, Look and Listen” is a highlight of the shaky MGM period, as is a somber but sublime new arrangement of Herman’s older hit “Blue Flame” with Urbie Green on trombone.

Herman and publisher Howard Richmond’s 1952 cofounding of Mars Records really brings the excitement. The sound is bright, the music adventurous. “Celestial Blues” echoes “Bags’ Groove” from that same year; a Burns arrangement of “Love Is Here to Stay” flirts with bop harmonies and lovely brass interplay. By the set’s conclusion in 1954, the band is digging into rhythm & blues—even a cover of Ray Charles’s “Mess Around!”—foreshadowing their ’60s rock excursions.

Herman’s underrated singing is one of the album’s pleasures; this writer had forgotten he was a vocalist at all until his silky baritone came through the speakers, sounding (as is Mosaic’s wont) better than ever. Unfortunately, the label’s completist spirit means that with such wheat comes chaff. In this case, that’s mostly MGM’s creative mismanagement of Herman, such as an appearance with easy-listening bandleader David Rose that even Jeffrey Sultanof’s exhausting, insightful notes can’t pretend has merit. That’s okay; Herman completists are the most likely consumers of the set’s 2,500-copy limited edition. The non-MGM material, though, is worth exploring by fans of progressive big-band and early modern jazz.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.