Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Benny Goodman, Goodbye.
Ornette Coleman, The Sphinx.

Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" had become, by the late 1930s, the standard closing number for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Goodman had taken to the piece quickly, often investing a sorrowful tone to the lead clarinet melody. And during the war, "Goodbye" naturally became a poignant end to an evening.

Goodman had experimented a bit with his sound in the postwar years; at times he seemed to be attempting a sort of chamber bebop. Yet by the mid-'50s, there's a sense that Goodman has resigned himself, quite comfortably, to becoming a representative of a waning age.

This version of "Goodbye," recorded in the American Pavilion at the World's Fair in Brussels, in May 1958, is not Goodman's farewell performance by any means--he would continue to play regularly throughout the following twenty years, and lived until 1986. But there is a sense of summation, of departure, to this recording: it's a sweet valedictory, a farewell to the swing era, performed with grace and beauty.

With Sheldon Powell and Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Gene Allen (bari sax), Al Block and Ernie Mauro (alto sax), Billy Hodges, John Frosk, Taft Jordan and E.V. Perry (trumpets), Roland Hanna (p), Billy Bauer (g), Arvell Shaw (b) and Roy Burns (d). On Benny in Brussels.

Two months earlier, in Los Angeles, Ornette Coleman, a 28-year-old alto sax player born in Ft. Worth, Texas, began what would be his first recording sessions as a leader. The whole thing had come about almost as a whim of Contemporary Records' owner Lester Koenig. The bassist Red Mitchell had told Koenig about some raw kid playing around LA, using toy instruments (Coleman played a white plastic alto saxophone, while his trumpeter, Don Cherry, played a Depression-era "pocket" cornet.) While Coleman's live performances were controversial, to put it mildly, Mitchell said his original compositions were worth hearing.

So Koenig arranged an audition for Coleman, hoping mainly to determine if he could pass Coleman's original pieces on to more established musicians. Coleman and Cherry showed up, but Coleman, flustered, found he couldn't play his compositions on piano. So in desperation, he and Cherry delivered the tunes on their horns. Koenig, fascinated, arranged for a full band session.

"The Sphinx" comes from the tail end of the sessions for what became Coleman's first LP. Like the rest of the tracks on Something Else!!!!, it's a relatively conventional performance, though Coleman and Cherry are sharp and vivid, their solos burgeoning with fresh melodic ideas and suggesting a volcanic reservoir of talent. The following year would feature the first of Coleman's epochal Atlantic LPs, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and his legendary performances at the Five Spot in New York. So consider this a curtain raiser.

Recorded in Los Angeles on March 24, 1958, with Walter Norris (p) Don Payne (b) and Billy Higgins (d). On Something Else!!!!

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