Asked in 1966 to comment on a contemporary jazz guitarist, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk retorted, "Charlie Christian spoiled me for everyone else." Monk had played alongside Christian during the legendary jam sessions at Minton's nightclub in the early 1940s, but it doesn't take another band mate to appreciate his opinion. A casual listen to any of the guitarist's celebrated recordings is enough to prove Monk was speaking straight from the heart -- Christian's just that good.
His career was like a thunderbolt: all light, power and majesty, yet gone in a flash. An unrecorded regional hero, Christian came out of Oklahoma in 1939 to join Benny Goodman's orchestra, played with the "King of Swing" until 1941 and died in a tuberculosis ward on Staten Island in early 1942, at the age of 23. In that brief span, Christian revolutionized the jazz guitar, bursting open the door for all who followed. The vast majority of his official recordings can now be found on a magnificent four-CD Sony box set, "The Genius of the Electric Guitar."
Although he seemed to rise out of nowhere, there were actually plenty of stylistic antecedents when it came to Christian's guitar wizardry. Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt established the acoustic guitar as an artful jazz instrument in the '20s and '30s; by the mid-'30s, Eddie Durham, Les Paul and others had introduced the electric guitar into the music.
But if Christian didn't arise out of a vacuum, he certainly took the guitar places that none of his illustrious predecessors dreamed of. Drawing inspiration from the brilliant tenor saxophonist Lester Young, a star soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra, Christian developed an improvisatory style that, harnessed with the muscle of his electric instrument, sang with a horn-like linearity. With a melodic aptitude that was second to none (or to Young himself), a dyed-in-the-wool feel for the blues that made each of his phrases ache with grass-roots authenticity and a rhythmic feel that made his every note dance, Christian's solos burst through his sides with Goodman, and the handful of others he recorded with. His experiments with advanced harmonies also helped usher in the bebop era that his untimely death forced him to just miss.
Goodman featured Christian in a small group that also numbered such swing giants as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (who died in August at 94), drummer Dave Tough and trumpeter Cootie Williams, whom Goodman had lured away from Duke Ellington's band. (Both Young and Basie also make guest appearances.)
With everyone in peak form, including the uniformly virtuosic Goodman, such performances as "Flying Home," "Air Mail Special," and "Solo Flight" (which finds Christian gloriously fronting the big band) are as sublime as classic jazz gets. The many outtakes -- the set includes 27 tracks never issued in the United States and 17 previously unissued tracks -- provide evidence of the guitarist's limitless cache of ideas.
Simply put, you can hear, or, at the very least, sense, Christian in every jazz guitarist who followed him. But, like Monk, it's difficult not to feel that Charlie got everything right the first time around.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8191.)