Clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw was a musical curmudgeon long before it became (semi-) fashionable: outspoken, biting the hand that fed him and staunchly refusing to play crap, prone to walking away from Show Biz when business was good. While Ellington epitomized class, Goodman, Basie and Lunceford wowed the dancers and Miller waxed sweet n' sentimental, Shaw was The Artiste, the fellow who envisioned a big band that had elegance, swung, excelled at improvisation and would be intellectually stimulating, all the while refusing to pander to the audience. This compilation, with its tracks chosen by Shaw himself, is irrefutable proof that he achieved all that and more. Listen to the ensemble playing on "My Blue Heaven" - it has the creamy smoothness of The Duke, but it's a lot more tart - the arrangement gently mocks the melody and there's a hearty, bluesy tenor sax solo (Tony Pastor?) that could come from a blues or R&B record. The strings Shaw used from time to time weren't merely pop "sweetening" but deployed tastefully and intelligently. Shaw was a big fan of classical music and would slip in influences here n' there, long before the concept of Third Stream - witness the lovely, moody "Nocturne" and the extended-form (over 9 minutes!) "Concerto For Clarinet."
Going against the grain of the sophisticated brass/reeds unison playing were the crackling, soulful trumpet sounds of Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge, and the spark plug of the rhythm team was often Buddy Rich. And while the so-called King Of Swing Benny Goodman's clarinet style was more immediate and swinging, Shaw's was edgier and much more adventurous. In fact, his playing was admired by some of bebop's first wave, and while many jazz and big band fans shunned and disdained the flowering of bebop - Tommy Dorsey called the bebop players "musical communists" - Shaw was a supporter and was influenced by it in the 1940s. Many of the Shaw hits are here - "Frenesi" is not because Shaw hated it - and there are a few live tracks and one vocal from one of his old girlfriends, a Ms. Billie Holiday ("Any Old Time"), and his sometime-theme song, "Nightmare," one of the creepiest tunes in American pop-music history. The remastered sound quality is MAGNIFICENT. And it's economical, too: 18-tracks, a generous 68 minutes of the Swing Era's best big band after Ellington. (Hey Artie, you couldn't have made it an even 20? Oy.)