While the first two volumes in Sunbeam's excellent Bix Beiderbecke retrospective focused on the great trumpeter's early sides and solos, showcasing his abilities as a rising soloist, the music on Bix Restored, Vol. 3, with it's astonishing variety of textures and tempos, reveals Beiderbecke as an artist in full possession of his musical powers, not only as a soloist, but as an influence on the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. This three CD collection of recordings with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and a host of side projects, reveals a very different side of Beiderbecke: the restless musician who was so taken with classical music that he sought, wherever he could, to incorporate it into his arrangements -- and in his solos -- with his orchestra. This may seem heretical to some, but not only does the music confirm it -- which could be, after all, just the silly misinterpretation of some overzealous critic not familiar with the elegant swing of '20s jazz -- but so does the testimony of the musicians he worked with: namely Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell and Jimmy McPartland.
The greatest evidence for this shows itself almost immediately on "Sea Burial," from February 29. The arrangement is Debussy-esque in its impressionist texture with a limited color palette and largo tempo. Beiderbecke is the lone soloist, playing whole tones over a backdrop of muted strings, reeds and winds. He is the lone brass instrument on the track, and plays around the ambiguous melody. No; it doesn't swing.
That doesn't mean, however, that nothing here does. Quite the opposite. The rest of the session from February 29 and the first few days of March were full of stompers, including two steamin' versions of "Sugar," and the wondrously corny "When You're With Somebody Else," with hilariously cartoonish vocals by Olive Kline and Lambert Murphy. The point of these tracks, however, is Biederbecke's influence over the proceedings: getting Whiteman to shade his brass sections and move them, at least temporarily, away from hot jazz or swing and into another dimension. A listen to "A Study In Blue" reveals not only the Debussy-esque influence but also that of Stravinsky and Ravel. As Tommy Satterfield's piano solo strides through a syncopated rag, the strings swell in counterpoint, playing the middle of the melody with enough elasticity to turn the entire tune on its back. When the winds enter and finally, the brass, the entire thing becomes a gorgeous pastoral paean to the color blue as well as to the emotion.
The rest of disc one alternates between mood pieces and hot jazz before the second disc opens to a full-on-jam with "Somebody Stole My Gal," a W.C. Handy-ish blues tune with Biederbecke leading his gang along with Izzy Friedman on clarinet. Biederbecke's solo is as elaborate a solo as he was capable of playing, and Friedman's clarinet, coming from the world of klezmer, adapted to the Memphis-via-St. Louis blues with aplomb. The rest of the session consists of three takes of the Rodgers and Hart classic, "Thou Swell." Min Leibrook's baritone solo in take one is astonishing. In no more than three bars, he packs in so many arpeggios you'd swear it was all a variation on one long note. It's too bad only these four tracks exist given the hot jazz wind these cats were brewing up.
The rest of disc two and the remainder of disc three are more in line with what the first disc has to offer: intricate and gracefully lush arrangements for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and for Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra. Adding to the argument that Biederbecke had a strong influence on Whiteman to take his orchestra in a more classically oriented direction -- in order to fuse jazz's hot rhythms and syncopations, as well as its bluesy-party-feel, with the musically sophisticated and articulate syntax of classical music -- is the fact that Biederbecke chose Whiteman as the arranger for the April 21-23 dates. At Biederbecke's bidding, Whiteman hired minor-league classical composer Ferde Grofé (an Aaron Copland wannabe), to chart the sessions. While sappier in some ways than Whiteman's own charts, they are nonetheless a "fusion" of the two forms, for better and for worse.
Disc three features a young vocalist known as Bing Crosby, and relates the now-permanent influence of the elaborate chart arrangements within the Whiteman Orchestra. There are plenty of blues and hot numbers, especially when the soloists get to give it a ride, but the group charts have their edges removed, and rather than stomp, they swing, steadfast but graceful. And with Crosby's voice smoothly negotiating the melodic waters, the Whiteman Orchestra became something else entirely in the span of less than three months. The rub is, however, that Beiderbecke's own playing reflects little, if any, of the influence of classical music. He still burns it up every chance he gets in his solos and (again as revealed by the wealth of alternate takes) blurs the line further by making his horn bleat rawer and dirtier blues than before! It makes for a fascinating equation and one that works so well that it's easy to forget the primal throb of the tracks recorded earlier in the year. When we get to "La Paloma," it seem the transformation of the Whiteman Orchestra is complete. They play the old Cuban love song without irony or a false sense of swing. They increase the tempo midway through the track and add a whistler or two, but it bears the same, sad, melodic, and harmonic traits as a son bands'.
Ultimately, the Sunbeam folks have done as swell a job on the three CD volume as they did on the earlier CD and the complete set of LPs. The remastering job is top notch, the documentation is spectacular, and the package is handsome. Which leaves the music: it may not be every Biederbecke aficionado's cup of tea, but it is as potent as the whiskey drenched blues-and-wail of the earlier and later material. This was a three month period that changed the way everyone associated with the Whiteman Orchestra thought about music -- particularly Biederbecke. This is the earliest exotica on record, and is as full of magic and surprises as any Bix Beiderbecke recording.