Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The man with the blue guitar (Eddie Lang)

I was happy to run across a website (still under construction) devoted to the guitarist Eddie Lang. Who? Eddie Lang (1902-1933), born Salvatore Massaro, was the first jazz guitarist. Indeed, Lang made the acoustic guitar a solo instrument in jazz. We're fortunate that so much of his work was preserved on records before his early, unexpected death (after what was to have been a routine tonsillectomy).

What's so terrific about Eddie Lang? Anyone new to Lang's music will be immediately struck by his guitar sound. There's nothing light or jangly about it. It's thick, solid--the sound of an acoustic Gibson L-5 with heavy-gauge strings and high action (the considerable distance between the strings and the neck of the instrument). Lang's playing combines the percussive authority of the pick with complexities available only to a fingerpicker. Which is to say, he can do most anything. His sound is orchestral or pianistic (or, come to think of it, guitaristic): in his hands, the guitar is an instrument of numerous tones and colors (especially French impressionist harmonies), capable of far more than the endless single-string runs of eighth- and sixteenth-notes found in so much "modern" jazz guitar.

Lang is also set apart from more recent players via the variety of contexts in which he recorded. There are guitar solos, guitar solos with piano accompaniment, guitar duets with fellow masters, guitar-violin duets with his pal Joe Venuti, guitar accompaniments for singers, and many recordings with the tonally eccentric ensembles of late-20s white chamber jazz. Bass saxophone, violin, piano, guitar: that's one example of the instrumentation to be found in the Venuti-Lang studio groups.

But Lang's work was not limited to the company of his fellow palefaces. He was significant too as a player who crossed the color line to record with eminent African-American musicians: among them, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bessie Smith, and Lonnie Johnson, with whom he recorded a string of brilliant guitar duets. Lang was, I'd venture, the first white bluesman, playing in the idiom with emotional and musical authority. Well before John Hammond "integrated" jazz by bringing Teddy Wilson into the Benny Goodman universe, Lang was on record as "Blind Willie Dunn." What did his colleagues of color think about it all? Lonnie Johnson called his duet recordings with Lang his "greatest experience."

If Lang has a shortcoming, it's a slight stiffness that's sometimes evident in his solo work. I'm not sure how to account for it, and I'm not even sure that other listeners would agree. But to my ears, he does sometimes sound more relaxed, more exuberant, less studied, when he's not out front. "I'm Wild About That Thing" with Bessie Smith is one example--Lang's obbligato practically dances it way off the record.

A few other bright moments in Lang's work: his solo guitar arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude," his breakneck duets with Venuti (try "Wild Cat" for starters), the solemn "Midnight Call Blues" with Lonnie Johnson, his beautiful fills on "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Singin' the Blues" with Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.

In Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter recounts a Joe Venuti story. Someone asked Venuti, "Eddie Lang died 42 years ago. Do you ever miss him?" Venuti, usually a wise-cracking tough customer, replied, "Every day."

I try to avoid commercial links on my blog, but if you'd like to hear Eddie Lang, here are the best places to start:

Eddie Lang: Jazz Guitar. A single cd from Yazoo Records and a nice intro to Lang's work. Yazoo is known for getting excellent sound from 78s. (I've been buying their records since high school.)

Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti: The New York Sessions: 1926-1935. A 4-cd set from JSP, and a bargain (about $7 a cd). JSP always offers excellent remastering. (JSP's boxed set of Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven and Hot Five recordings puts CBS-Sony's efforts to shame.)

Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti: The 1920s and 1930s Sides. A 2-cd set from JSP.

The Columbia/OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang Sessions. An 8-cd set from Mosaic. All the Venuti-Lang duets, Johnson-Lang duets, small groups, Lang's work with Bessie Smith, Texas Alexander, and other singers, and much, much more.

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Yes, to modern ears, Lang's single string solos sound stiff. All part of trying to be heard while playing in a band without benefit of amplification. As you note, when he plays solo to accompany a singer, that stiffness vanishes completely. It also virtually disappears in his last band recordings - the microphones had gotten good enough that he could play normally.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Eric. It's good to hear from a fellow Lang admirer.

Anonymous said...

...I have the JSP, 2-CD set, 'done' by JRT Davies.HE (JRT, I spoke on phone and corresponded with him) thought the JSP 4-CD set, must be HIS 2-CD set, plus an additional 2 boxes, engineered by Ted Kendall;but, even in the absence of track listings online (for the 4-CD box), I reckon JRT was mistaken, and that the New York Sessions 1926-35, is something completely separate.....any advance?

Michael Leddy said...

I wish I could tell you. I have just the Yazoo, the two-CD set, and the (killer) Mosaic set. Amazon has the track listings for the four-CD set: maybe that can help?