Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian and the small groups they levitated (for only a brief time, 1939-41) continue to resonate, even though I believe that none of the original players survive.
But the music does.
Here is a fervent sample — recorded live at the 2011 San Diego Jazz Party. (It comes from the “swingink” YouTube channel.)
This all-star sextet (led by Antti Sarpila) is playing AIR MAIL SPECIAL — composer credits Goodman, Christian, and Mundy — although my guess is that the composition should read CHARLES CHRISTIAN (100%), BENJAMIN DAVID GOODMAN (fine-tuning after the fact, percentage undetermined), and JAMES MUNDY (arrangement for big band). Poor Charlie didn’t even live long enough to enjoy the royalties from his one-third, but that’s another story.
Many Goodman tributes are overseen by clarinetists, senior or junior, who have memorized the King’s fleet set-pieces without understanding the central nervous system that made them work so well. Goodman seemed to use many notes, but he also had an intuitive grasp of space — how silence, like breathing, was essential to swing. He had great flexibility on his instrument but was never shrill; he was melodic rather than loud. Finnish clarinetist ANTTI SARPILA knows this from the inside out, having studied with the Master Robert Sage Wilber.
Then there’s the vibraphone / vibraharp — another instrument that lends itself, in the wrong hands, to swirling excesses: too many arpeggiated chords, too much jumping up and down a la Hamp, too much pounding. If you simply watch JOHN COCUZZI’s mallets, you’ll be hypnotized — they go so fast, and in this performance one disintegrates under the strain (where is Dixie Rollini when you need her now?) but don’t let the flashing sticks fool you. John’s phrases are elegant, his constructions logical and hot but never losing their cool. He rocks!
Then there’s that wonderfully age-defying rhythm section: Uncle BUCKY PIZZARELLI, who is both the single-string Friend of Charlie Christian and a chording dynamo (a long-time Goodman alumnus); young titan JASON WANNER, spinning out beautifully nuanced piano lines; reliable swinger RICHARD SIMON; engine-room man BUTCH MILES.
Put them all together and you have an AIR MAIL SPECIAL that’s both riotous and right on time!
And for a reason to save your pennies or to make your own coffee now and again — John Cocuzzi has just recorded a delicious CD called GROOVE MERCHANT for the Arbors people — with Antti, the irreplaceable pianist John Sheridan, guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Frank Tate, and drummer Joe Ascione. I’ve heard an advance copy and it swings in a lovely, insinuating way — and some tracks have become instant classics, stuck in the JAZZ LIVES car player. Coming soon!
For now, dig this AIR MAIL SPECIAL: it repays frequent watchings.