Better known as a classical clarinetist, having appeared as a soloist with such world class orchestras as the London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, and the City of Birmingham Symphony, Julian Bliss now turns his attention to classic jazz with his album A Tribute to Benny Goodman. As he explains in the album notes, his enthusiasm for the great swing clarinetist began early. On his first visit to New York City at the age of seven, already a “classical clarinetist in the making,” he chose for a souvenir a recording of Goodman’s greatest hits. And by the time he got to bed, he says, “I had heard every track—and I was hooked.” Fast-forward 14 years, the CD resurfaces and rekindles his passion for the master. He gathers together a group of like-minded musicians, and the Julian Bliss Septet is born.
Modeling his ensemble on the Goodman sextet that featured guitar great Charlie Christian, Bliss collaborating with pianist and arranger Neal Thornton and added a trumpet (Martin Shaw) so that they could include a few of the Goodman orchestra tunes in their repertoire. What you’re getting in this new album are not slavish imitations. They honor Goodman the way any jazz artist would want to be honored. They do their own thing, and they do it with style. Rounding out the septet are Jim Hart (vibes), Colin Oxley (guitar), Tim Thornton (bass) and Matt Skelton (drums).
The album’s 13 tracks include some Goodman classics and one or two less well-known pieces. Omitting “Let’s Dance,” they open strongly with a medley of “Don’t Be That Way” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” This is followed by the album’s lone nod to Goodman’s interest in classical music with a swing arrangement of Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24.” “Up a Lazy River” has a witty trumpet solo from Shaw, who does yeoman work throughout the CD. “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” and the “Sheik of Araby” get the real upbeat treatment with some powerful solo work from most everyone in the septet.
They do a lyrical “Moonglow” that is as good as it gets (and it gets very good). “Lady Be Good” and the Goodman/Charlie Christian composition “Seven Come Eleven” are energetic swingers with some interesting guitar solos from Oxley, not to mention the solos on the vibes from Hart. Bliss opens “Here’s that Rainy Day” with a stylish presentation of the melody, leading into a Thornton bass solo. “Goodbye” has Bliss playing that haunting melody aided by some sweet trumpet echoes. You might expect the album to end here, but you’ve still got the Al Jolson standard “Avalon,” “Soft Winds” and “After You’ve Gone” to round out the album.
A Tribute to Benny Goodman is a fine piece of work. Some may consider swing a bit old fashioned, but Bliss and the rest of the ensemble have put together an album that may change some minds. Great music is never old fashioned, and this is great music. And the best thing about it: think of all those other wonderful Goodman tunes waiting for a possible sequel. After that there’s Artie Shaw, and after that there’s Woody, and after that…well, you get the idea.