Unsubtleties

Lionel Hampton brazenly guides jazz's evolution

Which isn't to say all of this can't be fun, as my delight in "Gin for Christmas" proves. Although Hampton was no match for Armstrong, Red Allen, or Jack Teagarden as singing instrumentalists go, as often as not his vocals are irresistible—never more so than on "Stand By! For Further Announcements (and More Good News)," a ditty in praise of home ownership through the beneficence of the Federal Housing Administration, ironic today in light of the subprime-mortgage crisis, not to mention Hampton's subsequent wealth as a Republican real-estate tycoon.

The most trenchant criticism regarding this body of work has always concerned Hampton's laissez-faire leadership, his inability to impose (or maybe just disinterest in imposing) anything resembling a consistent musical personality on these performances despite being all over them with his vibes, piano, drums, and vocals. And this is certainly true enough: The sessions sporting blues insinuations by Johnny Hodges and other Ellingtonians, for example, wouldn't sound out of place on a collection of small-group Duke, and on the tracks dominated by Berry, the presence of his Cab Calloway teammates Cozy Cole on drums and Milt Hinton on bass gives him what amounts to home-field advantage over Hampton.

Yet this hardly proves a drawback when listening to the collection straight through, because the comings and goings of sidemen from session to session provides as handy a survey as you're ever likely to hear of the massive shifts taking place in jazz during a crucial four-year period in its evolution. Though Christian participates on only a handful of titles and Lester Young and Count Basie are nowhere to be found, their influence looms over the sessions from 1940 onwards—evident not only in the evenly accented four spread out by the rhythm sections, but also in the horn solos and the faint Southwestern twang of tunes like "Flyin' Home" and "Till Tom Special," both reprised from Goodman's small groups and co-credited to him and Hampton, though they give evidence of being lifted verbatim from Christian solos.

Through it all, Hampton is indefatigably Hampton, his drums and piano never less than energetic, his singing never less than charming, and his vibes never less than dazzling—note-y and reliant on stock licks as they can be, his solos turn on rhythmic displacements and semi- dissonances worthy of Thelonious Monk. By the fifth and final disc, Hampton was intent on giving 1940s record buyers what the charts suggested they craved, and piffle like "Bogo Joe," "Charlie Was a Sailor," and "Lost Love," with its mooning vocal by Lee Young, is of value only for its abundant period flavor. But everything till then is timeless, those infernal novelties included.

This will be the last "Interval" for a few months, while I meet a book deadline or give it my best shot. But I'll be back before you can say "Salt Peanuts." Or maybe I mean "Klactoveesedstene."


The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 is available by mail order only, at 203-327-7111 or mosaicrecords.com

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