FLETCHER HENDERSON — A Study in Frustration (review)

FLETCHER HENDERSON — A Study in Frustration album cover Boxset / Compilation · 1961 · Big Band Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
“A Study in Frustration” is an oddly titled four LP collection of the music of Fletcher Henderson put out by Columbia in 1961. It was also re-issued on CD in the 90s. Its an odd title because Henderson is one of the most important and successful figures in jazz. Although his name may not be as well-known as Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Charlie Parker, he probably ranks only behind that big three when it comes to his importance in innovations that furthered the development of jazz. The excellent booklet that accompanies this box set spends some time speculating that Henderson could have been more successful with better marketing, hence the rather harsh and undeserved title for this production.

Fletcher Henderson is the big band leader who has been given the most credit for taking jazz from its rough hewn and mostly group improvised New Orleans beginnings, to being a music performed by a big band reading complex written arrangements that featured hot soloists such as Louie Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. This entire collection spans from 1924 to 1937, but its that period from the 20s to the early 30s that makes up most of this set, and that's the period with the most interesting music as well. Fletcher Henderson was the master of 1920s jazz (also called ‘Classic Jazz‘), a style of jazz that exists in a world all its own, markedly different from the New Orleans jazz that preceded it, and the swing jazz that will follow in the mid-30s. 1920s jazz has a rapid flow in which ideas appear and are quickly discarded, sometimes in almost comical flippancy. The hectic herky-jerky rhythms are very urban in nature and reflect the constant bustle of city life, which was a new environment to many in the US at this time. Many a 1920s jazz arranger, such as the great Don Redman who worked for Henderson in the late 20s, was proud of their ability to experiment in their arrangements, often borrowing the latest harmonic developments coming from the leading concert hall composers of the time. Finally, this was a music for hipsters and wannabe gangsters, modernistic in its appeal, there was nothing sentimental about this music. With its comprehensive 64 tracks, “A Study in Frustration” makes for an excellent way to explore this very vibrant and fast moving period in jazz history.

If this review stopped here you would be correct to think that this is an easy 5 star collection, but there are some problems. At this point I have to credit a certain Steve Espinola who has taken the time to uncover editing problems in this collection. Apparently there are two main mastering sources for these old Henderson tunes. One source of masters is by an engineer for Columbia who decided to edit out any ticks by actually removing that part of the tape, a horrible idea that makes the music spasmodically lurch forward in some places. Some of these edits are more noticeable than others, and several tunes may pass before you notice, but when you do hear it, it sounds like the whole band just had a collective hiccup. This same engineer also tried to remove surface noise with severe eq techniques as well. These, of course, are the masters that were used for “Frustration”, as well as some other Henderson collections. Apparently there are some better masters by a John R. T. Davies, that are used in other collections (such as the Timeless label).

To sum all this up, despite the problems, this is an incredible collection and if you find it on vinyl for a very good price (as I did) then you have a good deal. But, if you are looking at the CD collection, because of the bad mastering, it seems there are probably better CD collections to be had.
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