100 years of Woody Herman and Witold Lutoslawski

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Woody Herman, directing the great, bop-drenched Second Herd from the late 1940s.

There have been a lot of round-numbered birthdays this year, and there will be no letup next year – what with Verdi, Britten, Wagner and Lutoslawski coming up fast.  And not just in so-called classical music, for Woody Herman would have been 100 next year as well. Yet he somehow doesn’t seem like a historical figure, for he kept his big bands refreshingly up to date over the decades, even attempting a rapproachment with components of rock before heading back to the mainstream in his last band.

There is some personal resonance here, since one of the first jazz records I ever heard was Woody’s recording of “Four Brothers” with the Second Herd. I was only four when I first gave this platter a spin; I didn’t know it was jazz, or what jazz was, but it sure sounded good to me (and still does).  Although I didn’t get deeply into jazz until much later, you could say that this record lit the flame – and how’s that for a segue into a fine new Jazzed Media DVD documentary about Woody called “Blue Flame” (also his theme).

In one clip after another, documentarian Graham Carter shows how Woody’s bands adapted to their times – all the way down to dress (dig those ridiculously wide lapels in the 1970s band, even on Woody himself).  Inevitably, as the film races through at least eight editions of the Herman band, it lingers lovingly upon the mighty First Herd of 1944-46 – whose 78s still have the punch to levitate off the turntable – and the just-about-as-great, bop-drenched Second Herd of 1947-49.  The sidemen remember Woody’s willingness to let his musicians develop and grow, along with his quick sense of humor, as in this exchange between Woody and his infamously undiplomatic young star, Stan Getz (Stan: “Man, you play the worst.” Woody: “That’s why I’m paying you to play, schmuck!”). Countering Getz,  there is welcome testimony on how underrated Herman was as a singer, a clarinetist and a saxophonist, with plenty of filmed evidence backing it up; the man had style to burn, and a vocal sound and instrumental sounds all his own. Maybe the most priceless clip here is an uncut, uproarious 1949 performance of “Lemon Drop” on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Terry Gibbs and Herman facing off in a frantic bop-scat duet, after which Herman shoots Gibbs a deadpan look worthy of Jack Benny. Yet every one of his several bands is represented by terrific performances, some not as groundbreaking as others, but all could swing like mad (the relatively-unheralded 1960s Swinging Herd comes off as particularly hot). And the film doesn’t omit mention of the dark side – the drugs that swept through the Second and Third Herds, the horrible IRS harassment that kept Woody on the road even after his health was failing near the end.

Woody’s big bands cut such a wide swath through jazz history – a full half-century from the `30s to the `80s – and was documented by such a tangle of conflicting, competing record labels large and small that until now, there has been no single recording that I am aware of that tried to touch all the bases.  This DVD manages to pull it off, and as such, may well be the best introduction to this lovable bandleader.

Continuing with the subject of 2013 centenaries, Lutoslawski’s is about to be celebrated early with a series of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall.   Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two programs (Nov. 30-Dec. 2, Dec. 7-9), while Lionel Bringuier leads the New Music Group in a Green Umbrella segment Dec. 4.  Salonen will be using this weekend’s concerts as a means of recording Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 1, which would complete his cycle of the four symphonies that has been left dangling since 1994. That, plus a re-recording of Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic – a tiny microcosm of Lutoslawski’s mastery of limited freeform – will be released with the Symphonies Nos. 2-4 as a download by Sony in the U.S. on Jan. 22, 2013 (three days before Lutoslawski’s birthday) and on two CDs Mar. 12, 2013. Originally, the Symphony No. 4 was scheduled for these concerts but evidently somebody got the bright idea of getting around to unfinished recording business. And high time, too, since Salonen started recording Lutoslawski back in 1985 when he was a young tyro of 27 and his label was still called CBS Masterworks.

Doing his bit for local contemporary music even after splitting the scene for London three years ago, Salonen will also squeeze in an appearance at a benefit event for the HEAR NOW festival at the Briard House in Culver City Dec. 5.  Salonen will be interviewed, and music will be provided by the Lyris Quartet, violinist Alyssa Park and soprano Elissa Johnston.  Click www.hearnowmusicfestival.com  for more info.