The music of Benny Goodman holds such an exalted position in the history of jazz that clarinetists understandably approach it with some trepidation.
It's impossible to hear works such as Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp" and Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing," for instance, without recalling Goodman's classic recordings. The man's phenomenally fluid technique and robust, exuberant tone still represent high points in the evolution of jazz clarinet and stand as crowning achievements of the Swing Era.
So it takes a rather healthy measure of faith and optimism to present an evening of Benny Goodman's repertoire, as clarinetist Victor Goines acknowledged Friday evening at the Music Institute of Chicago's two-day Benny Goodman Festival.
"I've got to tell you, it's much easier to listen to this than to play it," Goines said between pieces, though you never would have fully realized the scope of the challenge simply by listening to his performance. Rare is the clarinetist – then or now – who could finesse the intricacies of this music at all tempos while maintaining as gorgeous a sound as Goines routinely produced (Goines directs jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music).
As if to avoid the most predictable aspects of the Goodman canon, Goines conspicuously left out the aforementioned "King Porter Stomp" and "Sing, Sing, Sing" from the program at Nichols Concert Hall. Instead, he offered a survey of music arranged for trio, quartet, sextet and septet. And though most of the repertory was quite familiar, Goines and friends bypassed nostalgia in favor of lean, contemporary music-making.
By far the most exciting work of the evening unfolded in the second half, when Goines fronted the larger ensembles and generated the most rhythmic charge. From the outset of this portion of the concert – a lusty account of "Wang Wang Blues" – the musicians showed what deep swing rhythm is all about.
By the time they launched "I Got Rhythm," listeners could sense why Goodman provoked such pandemonium in audiences of the 1930s and '40s. Goines' fast, hot, ferociously syncopated solos were technically brilliant, but the arc of his phrases and the measured quality of his crescendos underscored the music beneath the pyrotechnics.
In this piece and others, it would be difficult to overestimate the impact of bassist Marlene Rosenberg, whose hard-driving manner gave the second half of the concert a degree of rhythmic thrust that the first half sometimes lacked. Rosenberg simply would not allow tempos to flag or energy to dissipate, her sound as big as her rhythms were aggressive.
Goines' other not-so-secret weapon came in the form of Chicago singer Tammy McCann, whose vocal firepower has few counterparts in jazz singing today. But what was most striking about McCann's work on this occasion was the range of sound she invented. Every phrase seemed to evoke a different color, another texture, a distinct kind of articulation.
Few female vocalists working today can scat as inventively and meaningfully as McCann did in "How High the Moon" or revel in the voluptuousness of sound that she created in "And the Angels Sing." Trumpeter Victor Garcia handled the klezmer-like middle section as if he were born to the tradition, then segued seamlessly into radiant melodic lines and stratospheric high notes.
The ensemble triumph of the evening came toward the end, with an audaciously brisk version of "Airmail Special." Vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes cut loose here, attaining impressive velocity and clarity in a hard-hitting solo. With Goines, Garcia and trombonist Audrey Morrison going full tilt, this front line sounded a lot bigger than it was. Pianist Aaron Diehl and drummer Ernie Adams similarly turned up the heat.
If the first half of the program did not generate such kinetic energy, it was easy to savor Goines' tonal beauty in "After You've Gone" and buoyant swing rhythm in "Liza." McCann aced "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen," that luxuriant voice of hers enveloping the tune and bringing forth its Yiddish flavor.
Long live Benny Goodman.
The Benny Goodman Festival continues with Larry Combs and others performing Goodman's classical repertoire; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. $30 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students; phone 847-905-1500, ext. 108 or visit musicinst.org.