Jazz CD Reviews

The Julian Bliss Septet – A Tribute to Benny Goodman – Signum Classics

Julian Bliss: from boy prodigy to Bach to Benny.

Published on November 6, 2012

The Julian Bliss Septet – A Tribute to Benny Goodman – Signum Classics

The Julian Bliss Septet – A Tribute to Benny Goodman – Signum Classics SIGCD288, 50:03 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

(Julian Bliss – clarinet; Neal Thornton – piano; Jim Hart – vibes; Martin Shaw – trumpet; Colin Oxley –guitar; Tim Thornton – bass; Matt Skelton – drums)

Clarinetist Julian Bliss has accomplished more than most people do, and has not even hit the quarter-century mark yet. The young musician, born in 1989, earned a postgraduate music degree at age 12, and a year later was asked to play for Queen Elizabeth II at her Golden Jubilee; performs in chamber and orchestral music concerts (with programs which range from Bach to Vivaldi); has released acclaimed albums, including one with his teacher, the renowned Sabine Meyer; and now Bliss has switched roles from classical wunderkind to jazz artist, with his newest endeavor, A Tribute to Benny Goodman.

In his liner notes, Bliss mentions Goodman’s appeal came early. When he visited New York City at age seven, he bought a collection of Benny Goodman’s greatest hits on CD: “I couldn’t help but stare at that man on the front cover, reeling back, clarinet in the air, grin on his face; breaking all the rules. By bedtime, I had heard every track: and I was hooked.” Flash forward to 2010, when Bliss decided to start on a Goodman project and began the formation of the septet which has brought Goodman’s music to life for a younger generation. Bliss’ initial contact was pianist/arranger Neal Thornton (who has traversed between classical, jazz, pop and other styles), and gradually put together a group which also includes Thornton’s son, Tim, on bass (A Tribute to Benny Goodman marks the first time father and son have recorded together); vibes player Jim Hart (his extensive résumé includes solo albums, and Hart has teamed up with Wynton Marsalis, Phil Woods and others); trumpeter Jim Shaw (whose credits extend from Natalie Cole to Jools Holland and lots more); guitarist Colin Oxley (who has shared stages with Scott Hamilton, Houston Person and fronts his own jazz trio); and drummer Matt Skelton (who has done symphonic and light orchestral work, big band outings, and has contributed to soundtracks).

Bliss’ homage is not a mere crossover attempt, with classical pedigree trying to swing it up. Bliss studied all aspects of Goodman’s output, from combo to big band to Goodman’s forays into the classical oeuvre, and the result is a swinging good time, with virtuosity balanced with nuanced joyfulness. The 13-track, 50-minute set mostly stays to the tried and true nuggets which Goodman fans know and appreciate. Hoagy Carmichael’s supple “Up a Lazy River” is a platform for nearly everyone: it has an incisive Shaw solo, showcases Bliss’ warm, smooth and clear tone, the elder Thornton slips in a witty piano improvisation, and this is one of many tunes where Oxley provides a Charlie Christian-inclined approach. While there is a determined sense of nostalgia which cannot be ignored, there are modern dashes on upbeat cuts such as “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” and the freewheeling “Sheik of Araby.” Both feature bright and breezy arrangements with concise but notable solos from the septet members, and excellent rhythmic support from Skelton (whose moderate touch nevertheless maintains a swaying groove), the younger Thornton (whose understated bass is an important foundation) and the older Thornton’s piano. Slower pieces, like perennial favorite “Moonglow” and Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “Here’s that Rainy Day,” offer quieter jazz situations where the septet’s instrumental shadings are memorable. Hart and Shaw stand out during “Moonglow” with graceful aplomb which evokes a by-gone time, while an elegiac Thornton bass solo connotes a contemporary coloring.

Bliss shifts to his classical background on a three-minute jazz take of Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24,” where he uses Lloyd “Skip” Martin’s swing-era arrangement. The melodic line may be European, but the jazzy overtone is purely American, and the septet does this track with ease and a sense of humor. A feeling of light entertainment and softened brilliance also permeates the Gershwin’s “Lady be Good (Rifftide),” where Bliss and his cohorts deliver an affable environment suffused with superb soloing. Bliss closes with a similar reading of “After You’ve Gone,” which dips slightly into melancholy but generally preserves an optimistic veneer. Some listeners may wonder why Bliss did not enlarge his tribute into a big band venture with an appropriately full-sized horn section. He could have, but the outcome would have lost the intimacy his septet presentation creates, and certainly would not have had the significant sonic clarity of this recording, where each player has a pronounced auditory space heightened by immaculately implemented engineering: one highlight is hearing Bliss employ his new Leblanc Bliss clarinet, which has higher amplitude than other clarinets. Looking at the songlist, some may wonder how “Sing Sing Sing” was not added, even though it is one of Bliss’ concert staples: Bliss is saving it for his next Goodman-oriented record.

TrackList: Don’t Be that Way/Stompin’ at the Savoy; Caprice No. 24; Up a Lazy River; The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise; Moonglow; Lady be Good (Rifftide); Seven comes Eleven; Here’s that Rainy Day; Sheik of Araby; Goodbye; Avalon; Soft Winds; After You’ve Gone.

—Doug Simpson

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