The New York Sessions: 1926-1935
Remastered, Box Set
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Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang cut different figures. Joe was combative, a joker and man about town. Eddie was quiet, considerate and careful with money. They were born in Philadephia - Eddie in 1902, Joe in 1903 - to Italian immigrant parents. Both studied the violin. Their partnership began in their mid teens when Eddie joined Joe's newly-formed band as a guitarist. Soon they were performing as a duo. Eddie made the early running. In 1919 he joined Charlie Kerr's Orchestra as a violinist, switching to banjo. For a few years, he was busy, gigging in Philadelphia and visiting New York to record with Kerr. Joe sometimes went to New York with Eddie, looking to jam with local jazzmen. By 1924, Eddie was in Atlantic City with the Scranton Sirens. There he sat in with the Mound City Blue Blowers - a raucous band led by comb and paper player, Red McKenzie. Not an obvious choice for Lang - but they were well known and they were about to cut a record. In 1925, Joe joined Roger Kahn, then one of the highest payers in the music business. In September 1926, when Joe signed a two year contract with Kahn, Eddie too was on Kahn's payroll. The first cut in this collection is the first they made in their own names. The routine Black and Blue Bottom is transformed by Joe's inventiveness and Eddie's energy. It was hailed as an innovation. Venuti and Lang were settling into what looked like becoming a long partnership. By April 1927 both men were New York jazz fixtures. Whether under their names or the leadership of others they were surrounded by great musicians, like Lonnie Johnson (Lang was one of the first white players to record with African Americans), Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini and King Oliver. The partnership ended when Lang died aged 30 following a tonsillectomy. Venuti soldiered on for some decades, enduring some obscurity before being 'rediscovered' in the late 1960s. He died in 1978 aged 74.
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Comparisons between Lang and Reinhardt are more difficult. Obviously Reinhardt could run circles around Lang with his speed and dazzling virtuosity. Though we are all aware that Lang was Reinhardt's inspiration, we must also realize that these two musicians were following quite different musical conceptions. Reinhardt's conception was hot, and amazing as he was, he frequently overplayed, and did not make very much use of negative space, aside from the tiny pauses and inflections which create swing and sense of speed. In other words, Reinhardt was brilliant, but also quite egotistical (as many who knew him have reported) and he did not know how to sit back. As a result, listening for extended periods to Reinhardt is a bit like eating frosting...thrilling and delicious, yes, but a little goes a long way. Lang's conception, on the other hand, was cool. Lang often hung back, let silence speak for itself and inform his playing, and was able to create more balanced musical pieces in solo, duet, or group settings. Lang was humble, and a team player, but he could come to the fore and delight the audience with his subtle, cool creations, never wasting a note or showing off in the process. Lang's music breaths, and his rhythm playing was crisp and perfect, unlike Django's often clunky attempts in the same department. Eddie Lang also had flexibility and adaptability on his side...he was able to tweak his style to fit into myriad situations, like the hot violin swing of Lang/Venuti sides, large jazz/pop orchestras (like Paul Whiteman's), pop vocal (he was Crosby's favorite accompanist), classical, and the oozing dixie-saturated styles of Chicago and New York jazz. Witness as well Lang's truly American blues credentials. Reinhardt could never dream of fitting his hot, rich style to the cool country blues sounds represented on the brilliant Eddie Lang/Lonnie Johnson duets on this set. In fact, the denseness and richness of Reinhardt's euro-gypsy conception will always make his playing markedly different than the more crisp and quintessentially American sound of Lang. Eddie Lang is also noteworthy for other reasons; To achieve a louder tone on primitive recording equipment, he had a guitar with a very high bridge, creating a stiff action which required great finger pressure to create a note, seriously curtailing his speed and flexibility. Finally we have Lang as the leading exponent in the emergence of guitar as a jazz instrument equal to, say, a trumpet, as opposed to its earlier role as chordal rhythm keeper. Lord knows what Eddie Lang would have accomplished if he had not died tragically young after undergoing a routine surgical procedure.
So, as much as I love Reinhardt and Grappelli, and I do, the comparisons with their earlier inspirations have seldom been completely fair or well thought out. For me, the music of Lang and Venuti breaths and is overall more balanced and refreshing. Opinions that Reinhardt and Grappelli were more advanced as a pair should be tempered by an awareness of the maturity, balance, adaptablity and verve displayed on these earlier sides by Giuseppe Venuti and Salvatore Massaro (Lang). This set of music, easily the best collection of Lang and Venuti, both alone and together, shows music which is exciting, creative and edifying in its own right. To view this classic jazz (and blues) as a footnote on the way to something else would be to ignore its inherent individuality, originality, and lasting value as art and entertainment.
This is an amazing set, deserving of five stars for sound quality, content, and notation, not to mention the fact that it is a remarkable bargain. Highly recommended.
JSP does their usual excellent job of remastering the old classics, and this must certainly be the best collection of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti recordings available now. Other musicians who appear on various songs include Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Traumbauer, Adrian Rollini, and Jimmy Dorsey. If you like old-time jazz from the 1920s and early 1930s, and especially guitar and violin, this 4-CD set is sure to become one of your favorites.