Virtuoso Performances Bring Benny Goodman To Life

Review by Bill Monahan of Benny Goodman Tribute at Meaford Hall

While the audience was a fairly mature crowd at Saturday night’s Benny Goodman tribute at Meaford Hall, it’s doubtful that anyone there was old enough to have experienced the thrill of dancing to his music when it was new.  It was back in the mid-1930’s, almost a century ago, that Benny Goodman and his orchestra brought jazz to the mainstream with swing music.  Without the social context that created a sense of excitement over the original orchestra the music inevitably takes on an aspect of a museum piece.  But it is filled with such vivacity and excitement it is hard to think of this music as a relic.  Especially when it is performed at the level of the musicians in Ross Wooldridge’s band, who pulled out all the stops and created a bouncing energetic performance with some impressive playing.

A musician has to have pretty good chops to play this music.  It is full of rapid fire arpeggios and polyrhythms that only the best players can pull off.  Ross Wooldridge has that level of players in his band.

It was a sextet, reproducing the music of Goodman’s small groups.  His big band hits like “Christopher Columbus” and “Sing, Sing Sing” were not included because they were part of a different Goodman configuration.  The various small groups that Goodman formed have staked a place in history because they were integrated when such a thing was unheard of (and illegal), mixing the very best of black and white musicians, but more significant than that was the fact that his small groups contained some of the most innovative and accomplished jazz players the world had seen, names that have gone down in history.  For a modern group of players to reproduce the music of these innovators from a bygone era is a challenge that few performers could pull off.  This group not only met the challenge they played in a way that, had the audience been twenty years younger, would have had everyone jumping in the aisles.

Benny Goodman’s small ensembles featured the best musicians of the day.

Ross Wooldridge has a command of the clarinet that allows him to match the lightning quick runs that are integral to any Benny Goodman song but also to reproduce the instrument’s tone that gives emotional resonance to slower classics like “Moonglow”.  The members of his band have the same command, allowing them to match the virtuosity of the original players, all of whom have become jazz legends.  Any one of them would have been a standout if all the others hadn’t been just as good.  Michael Davidson has an amazing touch on the vibes, faithfully and passionately reproducing the original power of Lionel Hampton and ease of Red Norvo.  Danny McErlain takes on Teddy Wilson’s piano style with seeming ease.  Phil Disera brought Charlie Christian’s guitar stylings to life and Glenn Anderson did honour to Gene Krupa with a great rocking rhythm.  Lew Mele not only kept up on the upright bass, but mimicked the distinctive styling of Slam Stewart, Goodman’s bass player who had an unusual way of bowing the bass while singing along.

Each player had an opportunity, almost with every song, to stretch out with a solo and they were all exuberant and joyful flights of rhythm.  Most impressive, though, were those passages that are built-in to all Benny Goodman music where a couple of instruments play these lighting fast sixteenth note runs in unison.  Ross’s group showed how well they gel with these segments.  When the clarinet, vibes, piano and guitar played the same lines, they were so tight that it was like one instrument, a beautiful instrument with all these tonalities blended together.

While the audience was marvelling at the musicianship and bopping to the rhythms it wasn’t until Alex Pangman came out on stage that the audience was actually transported to the day when this music was new.  It was as if a portal had opened and a woman from the thirties stepped through it, colourized like a Turner Classic Movie.  What is most unique and special about Alex Pangman is that she doesn’t mimic singers from that time.  If she did she would have had as big a challenge as the other players because when it came to “girl singers” Goodman’s band also featured the very best of the day.  Instead of imitating one of the many great voices that enhanced Goodman’s band, Alex Pangman has internalized these songs from long ago and when she sings them it is with her own personal emotion that makes them resonate with the audience.  The mutual respect between her and Ross is evident and he made a point of mentioning at several points her new Juno-nominated album, “New”.  In fact, her songs were sprinkled through the sets, so that she came and went, allowing Ross to introduce her again and again.  And her selections featured her recordings rather than Goodman’s.

There were a few instances where the program veered away from Goodman’s body of work.  He was the King of Swing, preceding bebop by a generation but Ross threw in a bebop number on the basis that Goodman would have liked it.  There were no complaints.

There were a lot of great songs: Running Wild, Honeysuckle Rose, Moonglow, and a version of Stardust by Alex Pangman that can stand up to any version on record.

At the end of the concert, Alex Pangman was given an opportunity to explain that she is the recipient of a double lung transplant and to urge everyone in the audience to sign their donor cards.  She pointed out that her lungs were donated by a grandmother and they have served her well.  She also mentioned Raven Taylor, the young Owen Sound woman who recently underwent a similar double lung transplant.  The local musical community had risen to the challenge of raising money for Raven’s medical expenses through a benefit that had been arranged at The Marsh Street Centre by John Malloy and Florian Lenders.  Alex dedicated to Raven the final song of the night, a song of joy and optimism called “Shine”.

While we have recordings of these old songs that are so full of innovations and spirit that they almost jump out of the grooves, nothing quite matches the thrill of seeing these masterpieces performed live.  To perform them requires such a high level of musicianship that there are few living musicians who have the interest and ability to bring them to life.  We can be grateful to Ross Wooldridge and every member of his band that they bring us this rare pleasure.

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