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Nashville Scene Live and Kicking

New jazz and blues discs capture immediacy of the concert setting

By Ron Wynn

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  Live performance remains the true test of musical greatness, especially in jazz and blues. While studio recordings are worthwhile in their own right and represent a carefully crafted work, nothing matches the special bond that forms between performer and audience in the live setting.

Live albums can be a gamble, but when they're capturing a vibrant performance, they're the next best thing to actually being there. From Louis Armstrong's majestic '30s concerts to B.B. King's unsurpassed Live at the Regal to John Coltrane's amazing Village Vanguard dates, plenty of jazz and blues concert LPs have preserved epic, historic performances. Three new releases featuring Benny Goodman, Luther Allison, and Eric Dolphy continue this tradition.

Benny Goodman's Complete 1938 Concert was initially issued in 1950, only a few months after the clarinetist discovered that tapes of the concert, previously thought missing, had been stashed away in his closet at home. The event was monumental for many reasons: It was the first complete jazz concert at Carnegie Hall, and it was one of the rare occasions when members of both Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's orchestras were assembled for performances outside their usual settings. In addition, it was among the first "concept" dates; the all-star band covered several songs from jazz's first two decades, among them ragtime, theatrical, and traditional New Orleans-style numbers. The reissued two-CD set includes three previously unavailable selections, along with Goodman's own, inimitable track-by-track analysis on the second disc.

Still, it's the music that makes this set unforgettable. By 1938, Goodman was on top of the world, considered America's most popular instrumentalist. It may never be resolved whether Goodman deserved his "King of Swing" mantle during a time when Ellington, Basie, and, for that matter, Artie Shaw made more innovative recordings, but there's no question he was the swing era's greatest clarinetist. His soaring solos, immaculate phrasing, and dazzling flourishes on "Don't Be That Way," "Sing, Sing, Sing," and numerous other tracks can't be faulted.

He was also an equally dynamic accompanist, able to contribute just the right lick underneath another soloist. His trio and quartet members were equally brilliant, from Lionel Hampton's whirling vibes and Gene Krupa's flamboyant drum breaks to Harry James' trumpet flurries and Teddy Wilson's delicate piano. On "Honeysuckle Rose," the Ellington and Basie band members swap fireworks with Goodman and crew in a manner that demonstrates why so many swing fans couldn't (and still can't) relate to bop. Even if you own the original version, this remastered set's vastly superior sound, bonus cuts, and extensive annotation make it an essential purchase.

For much of his career, bluesman Luther Allison was a bigger star in Europe than in America. He became an accomplished player in the late '60s after moving from Arkansas to Chicago, working as a bassist with Jimmy Dawkins before becoming a leader in his own right. But despite his impressive abilities both as a vocalist and as a guitarist, Allison's domestic releases were so erratic that he never scored any hits.

Allison moved to France in 1980 and was living there when he signed with Alligator in 1994. He finally began displaying the charismatic talents on record he'd previously shown in concert, and such releases as Blue Streak and Reckless rank among the decade's greatest blues sessions. Sadly, just as Allison began getting the recognition he deserved, he was diagnosed with inoperative cancer in July of '97. He died a month later, four days short of his 58th birthday.

Live in Chicago, a two-disc set, contains 19 songs culled from Allison's 1995-97 appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival, Buddy Guy's Legends Club, and the Zoo Bar in Chicago. While all the selections are tremendous, the high points are the festival selections, which feature Allison backed by the Memphis Horns on gut-wrenching slow burners. There are none of the forays into funk, quasi-reggae, or pop that marred his albums; instead, Allison reaches back and churns out blistering vocals and searing licks on songs like "Move From the 'Hood," "Bad Love," and "Big City."

There's also the anthemic "Gambler's Blues/Sweet Little Angel" medley, which pairs Allison with longtime friends and occasional rivals Otis Rush and Eddie C. Campbell. Rush and Allison trade scorching licks, Campbell adds comic relief, and a booming big band provides stunning underpinning. Luther Allison never enjoyed the crossover success of his comrade Buddy Guy, but he certainly made better records throughout the '90s. Live in Chicago may be his best.

Eric Dolphy was among jazz's true multi-instrumental giants. Though his tragically short career lasted only 16 years, he helped make the flute and bass clarinet legitimate vehicles for jazz improvisation. Dolphy loved chamber and classical music as much as jazz, and he had radical ideas about melody that alienated traditionalist jazz critics. Sometimes his alto sax solos were so fast and furious they sounded bizarre, but they were always carefully constructed and superbly executed. Right up until his death from a diabetic coma in 1964, Dolphy continued to stretch out and experiment.

The Illinois Concert, a newly released date, chronicles a curious occasion. Dolphy was the only jazz musician to appear at the 11th Festival of Contemporary Arts, held at the University of Illinois in 1963. His performance was the culmination of a month-long series of concerts and lectures, the vast majority of which were devoted to contemporary classical music. While some faculty members weren't happy about Dolphy's invitation, the students, among them future jazz trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and saxophonist Kim Richmond, were delighted.

The CD's seven songs include five by Dolphy's working quartet, which included a fledgling Herbie Hancock on piano, bassist Eddie Khan, and drummer J.C. Moses. Only Hancock was in Dolphy's class as an improviser, and he was still in development. Thus Dolphy's whirling flute and spiraling reed solos are awesome on such songs as "Something Sweet, Something Tender" and "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise," but his bandmates sound tentative and overwhelmed. Dolphy's greatness was so transcendent that he dominated his ensemble.

The final two selections match Dolphy with student groups. "Red Planet" flounders, but "G.W." clicks because the University of Illinois Big Band wisely steps back and gives him the spotlight. Although The Illinois Concert is far from flawless, it's still vital because it presents Dolphy urgently seeking a middle ground between experimentation and structure. And like the best live releases, it offers thrills that can't be obtained from sterile studio records.


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