Jazz snobs hate to admit it, but the truth is that swing was the rock & roll of the '30s and '40s -- the infectious, blues-based party music that kept young people dancing in a variety of social situations. Swing was the music that parents didn't understand; it was, to borrow the phrase that Berry Gordy used to describe Motown Records in the '60s, "the sound of young America." And when swing was king, one of its most successful bandleaders was clarinetist Artie Shaw. Assembled in 2001, Swing Legends: 22 Classic Hits takes listeners back to a time when jazz was part of popular culture and Shaw was a superstar. This 72-minute CD spans 1935-1950, but most of the tracks were recorded during the swing era. Many of Shaw's definitive hits are provided, including "Frenesi," "Moonglow," "Begin the Beguine," "Any Old Time," (which features Billie Holiday), and his gorgeous 1940 arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." Quite appropriately, the disc opens with the ominous "Nightmare," which became Shaw's signature piece. Nimbus offers the original 1937 version of "Nightmare," and because this CD is meant to be a best-of, it would have been better off with the better-known hit version from 1938. Nonetheless, both versions are superb, and they're equally evocative; when "Nightmare" is playing, the listener feels like they've landed in the middle of the ultimate black-and-white film-noir gangster thriller and expect Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake to walk in at any moment. While this CD is generally excellent, it falls short of ideal -- "Carioca" and the haunting "Moon Ray" (featuring singer Helen Forrest) are missing. But all things considered, Swing Legends: 22 Classic Hits isn't a bad place to start for those exploring Shaw's work for the first time.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson