There was never a bandleader quite like Woody Herman. His instrumental skills--on clarinet and alto saxophone--were high-grade, but not at the virtuoso level of such contemporaries as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Although he is credited with a few pieces, his compositional efforts cannot remotely be compared to the work of Duke Ellington or even Stan Kenton. And his role within the music of his ensemble, undeniably attractive in many places, did not serve as a primal element, in the fashion, for example, that Count Basie's piano playing did for the Basie orchestra.
Still, Herman managed to be a working bandleader, one way or the other, to a greater or lesser degree, over six decades. He fronted large ensembles from his first orchestra in 1936 to the celebration of his 50th anniversary as a leader in 1986 (he died in 1987 at age 74). Almost without exception, his bands were first-rate. At their best, they produced music good enough to be included in the most elite pantheon of big-band jazz.
That Herman was capable of assembling such fine units, over decades of stylistic change, with musicians ranging from hard-core junkies to youthful graduates of collegiate jazz programs, is testimony to his real area of creative brilliance--his ability to mold a stage full of individual musical egos into a smoothly functioning jazz collective. That is not in any way to disparage his other talents. His alto saxophone playing, in particular, had many admirable qualities, and his singing had the sort of rhythmic phrasing and conversational articulation that made Fred Astaire's vocals so appealing.
But it is as a leader that Herman made his real mark. The newly released two-CD reissue collection "Woody Herman--Blowin' Up a Storm!" (* * * * Columbia Leg-acy), chronicles the work of two Herman ensembles representing his peak musical achievements.
The first was generally identified as the First Herd, coalescing into a unit early in 1945 (Herman's earlier bands were usually labeled "the Band That Plays the Blues"). The next Herman band, first described as the Second Herd, soon came to be known as the Four Brothers Band, reflective of the saxophone section sound (based on the then-uncommon lineup of three tenors and one baritone) typified by the Jimmy composition "Four Brothers."
Each group was a superlative musical organization, but there were distinct differences. The First Herd was notable for its stunning ensemble work. Although it included such sterling soloists as trumpeters Pete and Conte Candoli, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, bassist Chubby Jackson and trombonist Bill Harris (who also surfaced with the Four Brothers Band), it was the collective, often spontaneous interaction that was the First Herd's most distinctive asset.
The sense of humor, for example, that courses through tracks such as "Caldonia," "Goosey Gander" and "Your Father's Mustache" was the product of instrumental excitement combined with spirited musical high jinks. By contrast, the band could also play with intense but subtle romanticism, best typified in this collection by its performance of Ralph Burns' gorgeous arrangement of "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" for singer Frances Wayne.
The First Herd was also the product of a dramatically transitional time in jazz. Bebop was beginning to have a powerful effect, especially on younger musicians. Pieces such as Neal Hefti's "The Good Earth" offered early evidence of the effect that bop would soon have on Herman's music. In addition, many of the Herman sidemen and arrangers, like musicians in other bands of the period--were listening closely to developments in classical music, with composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel drawing attention.
One result of that linkage surfaced dramatically with Stravinsky's composition of "Ebony Concerto" for the Herman ensemble. Not exactly jazz, it still fascinates for its colorful use of the sonorities of big jazz band instrumentation.
In 1947, after a hiatus from performing, Herman organized a new band. The presence of writers such as Shorty Rogers and Giuffre, as well as the continuing musical open-mindedness of Burns, quickly affected the new group. Equally important, perhaps even more so, the new members included players destined to become stars of the bop era--among them, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Terry Gibbs, Lou Levy and Don Lamond.
One of the most immediate products of the Four Brothers Band was "Early Autumn." Extending themes in "Summer Sequence," a suite written for the previous Herman band, Burns offered the first sample of the new three tenors and one baritone saxophone section sound. Getz's solo--a classic of the period--instantly established him as an important musical voice. Although "Early Autumn" was recorded after the band moved to Capitol Records and is not in this collection, its predecessor, "Summer Sequence IV," is present in two takes, each revealing Getz's extraordinary improvisational abilities.
But the defining piece for the Four Brothers Band, Giuffre's romping, up-tempo "Four Brothers," which gave the band its name, is included, with its string of inventive solos by Getz, Sims, Chaloff and Herbie Steward. Later recordings by this Herman unit (with some variation in personnel) include classics such as "Early Autumn," "Lemon Drop," "That's Right" and "Keeper of the Flame." "Keeper of the Flame: The Complete Capitol Recordings" (* * * * Capitol) serves as a useful adjunct to the Columbia collection.
Herman's leadership mastery was put to the ultimate test by the Four Brothers Band, which included numerous players who managed, despite severe drug problems, to play skillfully. A number of books about Herman and the band--including Gene Lees' "Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman" (Oxford University Press), William D. Clancy's "Woody Herman: Chronicles of the Herds" (Schirmer Books), and "Good Vibes," an as-yet unpublished memoir by Gibbs--describe, in colorful and sometimes painful detail, what a monumental task it must have been for Herman.
Ultimately, it is the music that remains, and this set is filled with an amalgam of glorious sounds, hard-swinging playing and whimsical wit. It could never have happened without the steady stewardship and mature oversight of Herman.