March 2003

Charlie Christian - The Genius of the Electric Guitar
Columbia/Legacy 65564
Released: 2002

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality **
Overall Enjoyment ***

Benny Goodman hired Charlie Christian after his producer, John Hammond, and bassist, Artie Bernstein, snuck the guitarist on stage during an engagement in Los Angeles. Goodman had been unimpressed by Christian's audition earlier that day, but Christian's performance with the band that night sparked a 47-minute jam, and he was hired on the spot. For the next two years, until his tragic death from tuberculosis at age 25, Christian would play with some of the best jazz musicians in the world.

Les Paul opens the booklet that accompanies The Genius of the Electric Guitar with an earthy, highly enjoyable reminiscence about Charlie Christian that includes this observation: "What I’m doing was so much harder than what he’s doing -- that’s what I thought back then. But over time, I realized how tough it is to come down on that one note in the right place.…"

Listening to these four discs of recordings Christian made primarily with Goodman from 1939-1941, it’s hard to believe another guitarist would respond to his playing with anything but mute admiration. Christian was quick, he swung hard, and he had a very sophisticated approach to rhythm. His influence on other guitarists was so strong that, even 60 years after these sessions, he still sounds current. Every time Christian solos in these swing-era recordings, it’s the sound of a window opening into the future.

Before Charlie Christian, the guitar rarely soloed in a traditional jazz setting. After him, jazz guitarists started popping up as soloists in bands and as leaders of their own bands. The great jazz guitarists who preceded Christian -- Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt -- played acoustic guitar in string bands and didn’t have to fight to be heard over drums or horn players. When Charlie Christian recorded his first solo for Goodman, on "Flying Home," the track that opens this set, he showed that an electric guitar plugged into a vacuum-tube amplifier could hold its own in a band. It had more heft and sustain than an acoustic guitar and could solo convincingly alongside a trumpet or saxophone.

Jazz fans who heard Christian playing that first solo on "Flying Home" must have felt what many of us felt almost 30 years later when we heard Jimi Hendrix. The sound was familiar yet exotic. Part of Christian’s genius was in establishing the sound and feel of an electric guitar in a jazz band. That sound, that tone, must have been a revelation to listeners in 1939. But it wasn’t merely the sound of Christian’s guitar that grabbed people. It was the effortless flow of notes, as easy and spontaneous as the melody lines of Christian’s idol, Lester Young -- not to mention his unique feel for rhythm.

Christian’s solos toy with rhythm and tease it. He anticipates the beat at some points, jumps behind it at others, then holds a note, stretching it out over the beat. Next to Christian, even so exuberant a musician as Lionel Hampton almost sounds staid because he hangs so close to the beat (he’s no less enjoyable for that). Goodman, however, rises to the challenge. He’s loose and playful, darting around the rhythm nearly as much as Christian does. While this boxed set highlights Charlie Christian’s talents, Goodman, under whose leadership these sessions were recorded, is frequently as astonishing as his guitarist.

Goodman was the most popular and powerful musician of the swing era and he used his clout to hire and record with musicians he liked, regardless of race. Consequently, Charlie Christian recorded with an impressive array of players in his short time, including Fletcher Henderson, Hampton, Count Basie, Cootie Williams, Johnny Guarnierni, Nick Fatool, and Dave Tough. It’s instructive to hear how a change in the lineup can alter the flow of a recording. Count Basie and drummer Jo Jones sits in for a number of tunes and the combination of swinging ease and dead-on timing they bring to their sessions is exhilarating. Similarly, Cootie Williams adds a muted trumpet line to one of the two arrangements of "Wholly Cats" that completely transforms -- and frees -- the tune.

Inevitably, sets of this size will seem too inclusive for the casual listener. Do we really need to have the two master takes of "Breakfast Feud" (with slightly different personnel), plus the seven alternate takes? Surprisingly, yes. Christian’s solo on each is vastly different from the others, and the variations in the feel and approach of each take give you some insight into how these musicians brought their vision into focus. You probably won’t want to listen to all of the takes in a row, but the tunes are so lively and fun that you won’t mind it if you do. The producers may have gone too far, however, when they included 13 breakdowns and false starts on the fourth disc.

I have a two-LP set from the early '70s of some of this material, as well as a late-'80s CD, and the mastering on this set leaves them both far behind. Drum tones ring out, you can hear the texture of Cootie Williams’s muted trumpet, and you can finally hear the harmonies of Christian’s chord changes, which were rendered as a vague chugging sound in previous releases.

There’s no reason to even consider buying any other edition of these recordings. For roughly twice what you’d pay for the two available Sony CDs of material featuring Charlie Christian, you get much more than twice the music in vastly better sound. Even better, this joyous music has never sounded better.