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Charlie Christian - Genius of the Electric Guitar

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Artist: Charlie Christian

Album: Genius of the Electric Guitar

Label: Columbia

Review date: Oct. 28, 2002

Essential Invention on Jazz Guitar

Charlie Christian did not invent the electric guitar, nor was he the first to play it. But his horn-like, bluesy, sweet-and-tart conception made the jazz world take notice in the late 1930s and early 40s, and he gave the instrument its first truly distinctive voice. Along with another southwestern-based musician, tenor sax master Lester Young, Christian helped push swing over the border into bebop with a supple, relaxed approach to time, and a smooth, chromatic approach that spun flurries of diminished and augmented scale notes with melodic and rhythmic grace, all the while evincing a liberal -and powerful- use of silence and sonic space.

With The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Columbia-Legacy has given Christian the full box set treatment: four discs that collect every note that Charlie played for Columbia -- including alternate takes, rehearsals, and false starts -- mostly under the aegis of bandleader Benny Goodman. The box itself is cleverly made to look like one of Christian’s old Gibson amplifiers, and the accompanying booklet offers excellent historical perspective and thorough biographical and discographical information, along with intelligent track-by-track commentary and plenty of photos.

Since Christian died young of tuberculosis (most likely exacerbated by hard-living and serious partying), it’s easy to see the record label marketing machinery trying to create another Robert Johnson-tortured-genius mythology around the guitarist. But don’t fall for it: whatever the truth of his lifestyle, Christian’s music sings with joy and a vital sense of discovery.

New listeners expecting the ultimate jazz guitar rush might be disappointed at first: Christian’s solos on these mostly small-group sides are seldom more than a single chorus long. But those choruses are almost always masterful; and they created the lexicon for nearly all jazz guitar that followed.

Beyond the value of this set as Chapter and Verse for jazz guitarists, there is the vivid record here of Benny Goodman’s near-invention of something that came to be called chamber jazz: a tightly arranged yet relaxed format that, with an almost classical balance and poise, allowed each member of the ensemble sufficient space for their distinctive voices to be heard. And what voices: Goodman, Count Basie, Lester Young, Cootie Williams, Lionel Hampton, and Johnny Guarnieri are just some of the masters heard from on these recordings.

The sound quality here is stunning; it’s a tribute to the original Columbia session engineers and the re-master engineers that this music sounds as good as it does. The drums in particular are richer and more detailed than on any other recordings of this vintage that I’ve ever heard.

The biggest thrill of the entire set might well be the guitar-with-big band showpiece “Solo Flight” : chorus after chorus, Christian excites and surprises with seemingly endless inventiveness. It’s as fresh now as it was back in 1941, when it knocked quite a few guitar players on their asses and opened up new ways of thinking, hearing, and playing.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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