. issue II : vi .

by barathron

. artist : artie shaw and his gramercy five .
. album : complete sessions .
. year: 1990 .
. label : rca .
. grade : a plus .

Artie Shaw

The Complete Sessions of Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five (1990, RCA) are cleanly luscious remasterings of this nonpareil jazz sextet(s): ingenious, evocative and dexterous, and with a translucence of sonic presence and artistic intentionality. In a remarkable ‘unclenching’ from Shaw’s big band cohesion, the Gramercy Five developed ‘head arrangements,’ a delineated experimentation through which each individual musician can shine, a sort of form-is-function meta-perfectionism where the piece is envisioned and delivered-more-than-its-sum through the serendipitous collusion of its creators. No small aspect of Miles Davis’ legacy is his encouraging of the personalized creative virtues of his musicians, thus merging each iterative band with an honest, mutually-motivated centrifugal naturalism — because specific to itself; and Shaw’s Gramercy Five is no less transmutational in its contextualizing talent to reveal it, and via its context, augment it. The presiding musical impression of Complete Sessions is one of generative concert (a meteoric event, even and perhaps especially at the threshold of bebop in the early 1940’s).

Both incarnations of the Gramercy Five cultivated a consummately distinct sound sourced from the musical attributes of the prodigious musicians. Further, both incarnations adhere tightly to the conclusiveness of their productive identities, saying exactly what they mean to say with a remarkably comfortable unselfconsciousness (somehow quite well-suited to the eponymous telephone number). The 1940 sextet — comprising Shaw (cl), Butterfield (tpt), Hendrickson (g), DeNaut (b), Fatool (d), and Guarnieri (hpsd) — evokes a quirkly dignified attitude, with a textured tone of sharp contrasts (e.g. the bright yowling suavity of Shaw’s clarinet against the sinister staccato of Guarnieri’s harpsichord) and a bouncy upturn in its thrall, like a wry snake charmer. The 1945 sextet — comprising Shaw (cl), Eldridge (tpt), Kessel (el-g), Rayman (b), Fromm (d), and Marmarose (p) — evokes an understatedly brooding bop, with lithe tones of piano and electric guitar hushing the mood. If the first Gramercy Five is a striking chiaroscuro, the second is a post-war lounge in cinema grayscale.

However, both Gramercy Five incarnations treat similar idiosyncrasies differentially, as two individuals might have different interpretive powers for the same bag-o’-questions; this is especially unsurprising when we consider the breadth of the American cultural experience between the years 1940 and 1945. The rigor of execution from Shaw’s big band demands is reframed to create an exacting, executive flexibility, and as such, the interwoven independence in both lineups carries an active and vigorous independence. If big band jazz is a context in which the trumpeters stand, play, and bob the bells of their instruments in perfectly synchronous constraint, then small band jazz connotes six spirited personalities cobbling together a musical experiment with perfect license. Indeed, the technical and collective execution is so confidently uncorrupted because the pieces have not had the life notated out of them, and thus each piece emerges fresh, ‘pulling together’ from a dexterity turned loose in all its precocity and spunky vision.

“Specific notable musical dimensions in Complete Sessions include a combinatorial use of unconventional musical range, texture, and mood; an actively evocative, engaging, and engaged tone; a presiding flair both Eastern and boppy; an organic, spontaneous and natural presentation; and a precocious technical decisiveness committed to its choices.”

The clarinetist (Shaw) and trumpeters (Butterfield and Eldridge) utilize extreme pitches in virtually every recording and deploy them in artful combination. In some instances the pitch will bolt across several octaves (e.g. “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?” implements accentuation whereby the trumpet may play low and then the clarinet high, or the harpsichord may play high and then the clarinet low); in other instances, the pitch blends by dovetailing (e.g. the spiraling bridge in “Special Delivery Stomp”); and in others still the pitch is transferred, like a tag-team baton race, in the middle of a run (e.g. the opening ripostes in “Scuttlebutt” and the tug-of-war in “When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin” and “The Grabtown Grapple”). The textural composition of both sextets is unique and evocative, with the 1940 harpsichord and the 1945 piano functioning like wellsprings for textural enrichment. In “Summit Ridge Drive,” the trumpet and clarinet alternately croon and chug the song along, passing off their supplementary roles to the matter-of-fact harpsichord that is so distinctively featured in this song. Midway through “Keepin’ Myself For You,” the especially tremulous volume of the clarinet and trumpet is interrupted by an inflexibly stodgy harpsichord run. The attitude of piano styling informs the noir lounge of “The Sad Sack” so crucially that the other instruments seem to be merely aligned. Indeed, the ‘keyboard’ instrument sometimes provides a counterpoise throughout the entire song, as “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?” uses the harpsichord’s sharp timbre to both enliven and threaten by interjecting the effusive clarinet and trumpet in mirroring attitudes, and the continual (read: near ‘perpetual’) boppy suavity of the piano in “Mysterioso” is reinterpreted by the light of each mood change, its constancy dissociating the listener subjected to both Eastern and bebop riffing and sinister and positive tones.

One of the most remarkable attributes of this album is the variegated inventiveness that seems to emerge from the same musical concerns. Though the creation of eleven jazz musicians, collaborating in two groups, and separated by five years, the Complete Sessions of the Gramercy Five are just that: complete. This summary mien of Complete Sessions is spunky, sinister, and elegant. In some instances, coherence of tone is established and maintained: in “My Blue Heaven” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the mood is set by the clinically-sentimental melody of the clarinet and guitar, which operates through turn-and-turn-about restraint and embellishment, and “The Gentle Grifter” is saturated in weightless positivity by the delicacy of its guitar and piano treatment. However, in other pieces the mood is composite and only works through itself by a mutual repulsion. As discussed above, “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?” and “Mysterioso” invoke confusion, the former by the sharp intentionality of the harpsichord set against mirrors of pitch variety, and the latter by the pallid-and-placid lounge piano ghosted through with low, foreboding trills. Notably, the Gramercy Five seem drawn to participate in the juxtaposition of illuminated and shadowed tones and the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western flavors. These musical themes seem to be a constant source of inspiration for the sessions, and “Livingstone” represents its closest study, invoking each mood distinctly but piecemeal and with circularly disorienting ‘progression.’

In addition to “Livingstone,” at least six other pieces utilize the jazzing of an Eastern motif. In “Scuttlebutt,” the snake-charming riff is supplemented with airy piano ornamentation and crowned with a boppy trumpet toot. In “The Grabtown Grapple,” the clarinet and trumpet momentarily entwine with reflexive trills, but are outshone by subsequent trumpet and piano solos that purely ‘bop.’ In “Mysterioso,” though an ensnaring trumpet solo punctuates a deep, brooding trill, the decidedly ‘lounge’ atmosphere is compounded by a boogying bass, a restrained and conventional guitar solo, and a winsome piano closer.

The delivery feels unhampered and natural, with a true serendipity and limberness of attitude. An instance of this spontaneous presentation occurs in “My Blue Heaven,” where the main riff is arranged alternately (partially and in full, and for one and several instruments), and in which alternating incompleteness each instance is emphasized. These ‘omissions’ (also including the space ‘left in’ the improvisational sections) feel incidental but starkly apropos. In “Special Delivery Stomp,” the curtly kinetic clip evokes a natural energy, the harpsichord ‘peeks’ through the clarinet and trumpet solos (interpolating its characteristic texture without flaunting its presence), and the bridge is adorned with clarinet and trumpet spiraling down and pulling up short in a loose, imperfect, echoing dovetail. Similarly, the skeletal expanse left for the snapping bass in “The Grabtown Grapple” emphasizes the seductively charming riffs from clarinet and trumpet that bookend this space.

As to the decisiveness of execution, it can be found in the effortless connotative shifts effecting controlled volatility, calm sunny summers, lurking threats, mischievous neighborhood whimsy, the last man at the bar, and the first couple on the dance floor. Aside from the attitudinal and patent technical dexterity, the conclusion of these pieces is a litmus test for the playfulness that comes with eminent competence and confidence; for example, “Summit Ridge Drive” exacerbates the campy riffing at its close, with each instrument seeming to want the last ‘word.’

“The Gramercy Five’s Complete Sessions is an astonishing showcase with a visceral and vital impact, flawlessly engaging, … and the bouncy thrall of these sessions exerts itself over the beholder like a marvel.”

The standout tracks are “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume,” “Special Delivery Stomp,” “Cross Your Heart,” “The Grabtown Grapple,” and “Scuttlebutt.” If forced to it, I rate this album at 97%. If not for the exquisitely novel combination of the 1940 incarnation (102% — truly) I would not rate the 1945 tracks so low (92%) and have to average them out. Indeed, when I first heard Guarnieri’s harpsichord set against Shaw’s clarinet (… and rushed to purchase this album), I felt that the original lineup offered more innovation than I was prepared to quantify in a review, even more than (at that time) I had thought possible for that long-ago era.

by Brittany Tracy