In the rude, rough-and-tumble origins of American jazz, musicians who could be heard above the roar of the bars and bordellos dominated the style's early sound. Piano, brass, and reeds were the principal leads, while stringed instruments were generally relegated to the rhythm section. But when live amplification and modern electric recording techniques evolved in the late 1920s, it was a whole new ballgame. Among the first stars to exploit these opportunities were guitarist Eddie Lang and violin whiz Joe Venuti, an Italian-American duo who worked together throughout the Depression, adding ingenious melodic oomph to countless recordings by many of the biggest hitmakers of the jazz era. Venuti and Lang were primarily session men who ostensibly worked in the background, yet indelibly shaped the melodic vocabulary of American pop, taking advantage of the new technologies that enabled their sweet leads to be heard note for note at last. Their influence is best heard in a sweeping new 7-CD box set from the exclusive Mosaic label, which highlights Venuti and Lang in a variety of settings, backing stars such as Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, and Clarence Williams, as well as in their own innumerable acoustic combos. No matter who they played with, the stamp of their joyful, expansive style comes through as the dominant driving force, adding a delightful and irresistible lilt to even the corniest material.
Another guitarist who capitalized on technical advances to carve a place in jazz history was the legendary Charlie Christian, who is credited by many as the single most influential figure in the history of jazz guitar. In 1938, Christian came up from Oklahoma to join the Benny Goodman Orchestra and brought with him the then-innovative technique of playing with his guitar plugged into an amplifier, which enabled him to play as loud as his brassy swing compatriots without sacrificing his own sweet, well-rounded tones. Playing electric wasn't Christian's own invention -- blues and western swing players had been tinkering with amplification throughout the Southwest -- but Christian was the guy who brought the new technology to the big city and into the mainstream.
Sony's new 4-CD box set is the definitive Charlie Christian collection, gathering together dozens of Christian-Goodman collaborations, all of it among the sweetest swing music ever recorded. But behind all the pretty melodies, Christian sculpted an entirely new musical universe, where tonality and dynamic range could be toyed with in ways that were only feasible with the new technology. His articulation of these possibilities is heard in the lengthy "Jam Session" that closes the collection, one of two dozen previously unreleased tracks included here. As his guitar solo ends and the rest of the band toots away with typical big-band gusto, Christian begins to well, fiddle around with his instrument, tapping and scraping the strings, sounding distracted, spaced out, yet innovative and glorious: He had realized how the potential of amplified sound might allow even the most quiet explorations to be added into the dance band riot, and how jazz itself might be transformed.
In one of the great tragic what-ifs of music history, Christian died of tuberculosis in 1942. As the numerous testimonials that accompany the box set indicate, not only was he one of the first artists to use electric guitar's new power, he also remains one of the instrument's most revered players, and one of the most soulful.
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