Mosaic’s eight-CD set of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti gems
1927 was a great year in jazz history. It was the year Louis Armstrong recorded “Potato Head Blues” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” further cementing his preemenince as jazz’s greatest soloist and pointing the way for all who followed. It was the year Duke Ellington landed a gig at Harlem’s prestigious Cotton Club and recorded “Black and Tan Fantasy,” his first composition in the mature style for which he would later be lauded as “America’s finest composer.” It was the year Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer recorded “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming Virginia,” adding a piquant lyricism to the nascent jazz solo style and proving that white musicians could play with the same sort of individuality and authority as blacks. And it was the year that guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti recorded “Wild Cat” and “Cheese and Crackers,” forging a legitimate spot in the jazz pantheon for their instruments. Lang also performed on the Trumbauer/Beiderbecke sides, two of the highlights of Mosaic Record’s monumental box set The Classic Columbia and OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang Sessions, the most extensive exploration of Lang and Venuti’s music since Columbia released the two-LP set Stringing the Blues in 1962.
Lang is indisputably the first jazz guitar star, and the fact that he’s not more widely known (eclipsed by the more flamboyant Django Reinhardt and the electric guitarist Charlie Christian) is due to his early death at the age of 30 in 1933 from a misdiagnosed (and still unknown) illness (he was recovering in the hospital from an apparently unnecessary tonsillectomy at the time of his death). But Lang’s contribution is not only to jazz; he is really the first guitarist to demonstrate the guitar’s versatility and its myriad possibilities in pop, blues, jazz, and even (though it’s stretching a bit) classical music (he recorded a lovely solo guitar version, included here, of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popular Prelude Op. 3, No. 2, a year before Andrés Segovia’s New York debut). His fluency with a wide range of music, sophisticated harmonic sense (trained as a classical violinist, he had a fondness for the French impressionists Debussy and Ravel), fluid Louis Armstrong–influenced single-string solos, and brilliant accompaniment style (which mixed bass runs, strums, arpeggios, and chromatic fills in a way that has not been equalled since) established the guitar in a role that has since made it the most popular instrument in the world.
Lang and Venuti grew up together in Philadelphia and they proved virtually inseparable for the rest of Lang’s short life. Venuti, in fact, never really recovered from his partner’s death. (The last disc in this set shows Venuti soldiering on with other guitarists, but he would subsequently abandon the small-group style that he pioneered with Lang and revert to captaining large society bands, none of which achieved the popularity or vibrancy of his Blue Four assemblages.) The pair, raised on the classics and Italian folk songs, soon discovered jazz and began arranging “routines”—hot arrangements of popular tunes and their own compositions that showcased their joined-at-the-hip rhythmic sense; Lang’s driving, nuanced accompaniment; and Venuti’s astounding “jazz Paganini” violin technique (his fluency in the upper registers, perfect intonation, and unerring sense of time could have made him one of the 20th-century’s finest classical virtuosos had he been so inclined). Their first duet recording, “Black and Blue Bottom,” made on a quick trip to New York City (between gigs in Atlantic City) on September 29, 1926, shows all the elements of their style in place and well-oiled. Their move to New York a month later began a long series of recording sessions and gigs (in duos, jazz quartets, sweet society dance bands, backing singers, etc.) exhaustively documented in this sumptuous set.
While those unfamiliar with Lang and Venuti may be content to sample the duo’s delights on JSP Records’ two-disc Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti set The 1920s and 1930s Sides or Yazoo Records’ Lang disc Jazz Guitar Virtuoso and its Venuti companion Violin Jazz, 1927–1934, Mosaic’s eight-CD set gives the listener a feel for the duo’s busy lives as musicians in New York City during a particularly vibrant period in that metropolis’ musical history. Lang and Venuti were two of the most popular studio musicians of their day, and the chronological nature of this set’s programming provides a glimpse of their lives as they progress from young hotshots to jazz stars. The set winds from their own exciting duos and Blue Four sides to sessions with such jazz stars as Beiderbecke and Armstrong, blues sessions with Bessie Smith and King Oliver, and dance band and pop gigs with Paul Whiteman and Fred Rich, pausing a little too long for most modern ears on the treacly pop corn of such forgettable singers as Annette Hanshaw (“Who-oo, You-oo, That’s Who”) and Smith Ballew (“I’m Tickled Pink with a Blue-Eyed Baby”). But just as the set seems to be getting mired in cotton candy and pink lace, gems like the exhilarating Blue Four cuts “Running Ragged” and “Apple Blossoms” (sandwiched here between the insipid Whiteman versions of “After You’ve Gone” and “Happy Feet,” which won’t make anyone’s feet happy) remind us that this is not just a historical document but a rich record of two exhilarating artists.
Had Lang lived longer, Joe Venuti’s Blue Four could easily have become a model for young Langologists and Venutians, much as Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Hot Club recordings inspired a cult of Gypsy-jazz heads. The Blue Four, featuring Lang, Venuti, a pianist (usually Arthur Schutt, Frank Signorelli, or Rube Bloom), and a saxophonist (Don Murray, Jimmy Dorsey, or most notably, bass sax virtuoso Adrian Rollini) created a unique sound that was wild, driving, virtuosic and full of humor, pathos, and intriguing instrumental colors. The two Blue Four numbers recorded on September 27, 1928 demonstrate this superbly. The appropriately named “Sensation” is as wild and exhilarating a ride as Reinhardt and Grappelli ever took, while Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Room” is given an arrangement filled with Debussy quotes, harmonized melody lines, fiddle harmonics, Bloom’s scat singing and rippling piano, and Dorsey’s rockin’ baritone sax and swooping clarinet (the members of the group often played more than one instrument on a cut, switching axes mid-take).
The Blue Four was primarily Venuti’s showcase. Lang was the glue that kept the others from swinging out of control. Where Lang really shines in this set is in a series of blues sessions with such singers as Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander, and Bessie Smith and in particular in a groundbreaking series of duets with guitarist Lonnie Johnson (recorded by Lang under the “nom de blues” Blind Willie Dunn; Lang was one of the first white jazz musicians to record with black blues singers, and although the record companies didn’t seem willing to officially acknowledge the fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone with ears being fooled once they’d heard Lang’s signature accompaniment style). These intimate sides, often with only Lang, a singer, and another accompanist (pianist Clarence Williams, cornetist King Oliver) provide an excellent opportunity to examine the details of Lang’s virtuosic backup guitar playing. In the duets with Johnson, Lang primarily fills the rhythm role, letting Johnson spin off his fluid leads while Lang backed up the impromptu blues-based instrumentals with an incredible variety of techniques—flurries of passing chords, anticipated bass notes, odd accents, chordal substitutions and inversions, and elaborate runs. When Lang does take the lead, the duo falters slightly, as Johnson usually reverts to simple strummed root chords, leaving Lang’s rich-toned leads (played on his heavily strung Gibson L-5) room to shine but diminishing the complex interplay of the two masters.
After Lang, jazz rhythm guitar became defined by the chunky 4/4 swing of guitarists like Freddie Green and Django Reinhardt’s stalwart accompanists, and the piano became the primary instrument when a more elaborate accompaniment was desired. But a study of Lang’s work on these recordings could provide a wealth of ideas for swing and jazz guitarists looking for release from their rhythmic straightjackets. For everyone else, this set (which comes with Mosaic’s usual lavishly illustrated and annotated booklet) allows us to bask in the all-too-fleeting glow of one of the guitar world’s most influential yet unsung stars and his flamboyant, fiddling companion.
Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, The Classic Columbia and OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang Sessions, Mosaic 213, http://www.mosaicrecords.com.