Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Oct. 25, 2002
Charlie ChristianThe Genius of the Electric Guitar (Columbia/Legacy) Texas-born, Oklahoma-bred Charlie Christian was not the first musician to play an electric guitar, nor the first to be recorded on it, but without question, his stunning virtuosity single-handedly transformed the instrument's role from a barely audible rhythm accompaniment to a gleaming, expressive, front-line dynamo. Christian revolutionized the guitar by giving it a solo voice and a fresh, fluent personality to go along with it. Although he never lived to see the full-flowering bebop movement, Christian's sophisticated harmonic improvisations sowed the seeds of that heady musical revolution. Perhaps more impressively, he accomplished all this in the span of less than three years, before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25. This oddly-packaged 4-CD box set is the most comprehensive domestic release of Christian's legacy to date, rounding up his late-1939/early-1941 sides, when the guitarist was a member of "King of Swing" clarinetist Benny Goodman's Sextet and Orchestra. The Genius of the Electric Guitar contains nearly 100 selections, over a third of which are previously unreleased. More importantly, these sessions represent some of the very finest small group swing sessions ever. Nowhere else in this era will you hear a guitarist standing toe-to-toe with the best improvisers in jazz. The early dates with Goodman feature Christian and recently deceased vibraphonist Lionel Hampton on the frontline, swinging with a vengeance. The best date is a loose affair that finds Christian and Goodman jamming with Count Basie and his All-American Rhythm Section along with trumpeter Buck Clayton and saxophone president Lester Young. Christian's playing is a wonder to behold, still sounding potent 60 years later. He was, indeed, the first guitar hero.