Sunday, November 13, 2011

Swinging Into The Past: This Is Benny Goodman Is Very Average.

The Good: Moments that are instrumentally impressive, Vocals are musically interesting
The Bad: Stale lyrics, Repetitive sound on several levels, Short
The Basics: Very good swing music, but extraordinarily dated, This Is Benny Goodman features lyrics that don't pop and the instrumentals evoke little imagery. The album tires listeners with a repetitive sound.

This Is Benny Goodman is the definitive volume of Benny Goodman's career. Never heard of Benny Goodman? He was as big as Ricky Martin back when swing was popular. He was a clarinet player and he's quite good at playing the clarinet. The clarinet is one of those tricky instruments to become proficient in because most people figure "who cares?" It's like getting a degree in Comparative Literature, you can do it and it's impressive for the academic accomplishment, but who truly cares? Well, other Comparative Literature majors, I suppose. In this case, I received This Is Benny Goodman over a decade and a half ago on audio cassette as a motivation to do better at playing the clarinet.

As I sit here listening to This Is Benny Goodman for the thirtieth time since I received it all of those years ago, I am contemplating for the first time why I have not gotten rid of it. It was a gift to me, no kidding, to inspire me by illustrating just how good a clarinet may sound. I was all thumbs with musical instruments and I have to give Goodman credit, he plays the instrument well. I think, though, the reason I've kept this disc is because it was a gift and not on the merits of the album. I've listened to every other piece of music in my collection at least ten times for every time I've heard this cassette.

This Is Benny Goodman contains twenty songs, all swing or jazz, all featuring Benny Goodman's famed clarinet. The pure instrumental tracks are diverse and sound great. It's an interesting trip, almost like a field trip to the primordial fields where rock and roll evolved, there are surprising hints to the future of music and the changes in style in the sounds of Benny Goodman. It's easy to hear how the drums that back Goodman up evolved from the swing beats into the up-tempo kicks of rock and roll. But more than that, Goodman's clarinet alludes to some of what the saxophone would do for rock.

However, it's difficult to make an album that focuses on the clarinet sound terribly diverse. With the clarinet as the primary instrument, the listener becomes more aware - and dependent upon - the random drum solo or the vocals in order to stay interested and even awake. Several of the tracks have similar beat patterns or just the same range of clarinet notes in them, making the album sound stale, like you've heard the track before, because the last two tracks used the same range. So while I am impressed by Goodman's clear command of the fingerings, I'm less impressed with his traversing the full range of what the clarinet can do. Instead, I'm somewhat astonished that someone who uses the middle range of the instrument so consistently became so popular. It's like listening to any musical artist who stays in the same range of notes: we realize that they could be doing more and wonder why they are not.

Nine of the tracks contain vocals and are essentially smoky jazz tunes that seem dated and rather lyrically unimaginative by today's standards. Indeed, there's not a single artist today that could do a cover of the toe-tapping "And the Angels Sing" and have it chart in the top twenty. The songs are all antiquated love songs and they express outdated notions of sappy emotionalism or ideas of enforced social restraint to love that are utterly frustrating to listen to. They use predictable rhymes and are tired. The lyrics do not even foreshadow those used by rock and roll. I think it's likely the lyricists of early rock and such listened to these lines and said "I want to say something more meaningful."

For what it is - early jazz, big band swing - it's very good, but I can't bring myself to recommend it because it's not terribly good music. I mean, it is listenable, it gets the toes tapping, but it doesn't evoke any real emotion. The few songs that have lines feel like they create a very definitive time and place, those that do not are so focused on a single instrument that they fail to evoke any real images, as classical music often does. It's a pleasant trip in a time machine listening to This Is Benny Goodman, but that's about it. And after all of this time with it gathering dust, save the once a year I now take it out to play, it's time for me to pitch it, too. It's a pleasant ride in a time machine, but there are better.

For other instrument-driven music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Living Stereo Respgihi and Debussy
Nocturnes, Volume 1 - Chopin
Karajan Gold Tchaikovski


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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