In his autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella, Artie Shaw periodically describes his own sense of alienation, first as ethnic "other" during his childhood, then as fledgling bandleader full of ideas, struggling to conform without conforming, and most horrifically as sudden sex symbol and superstar, dreadfully dwarfed by the ersatz image of the creature that everyone seemed to think he ought to be. Confronted with the phonograph recordings of Artie Shaw, one might best bear this ongoing identity crisis in mind, and seriously appreciate the not uncommon tightrope act combining pop culture success with the creation of at least some music of substance and depth. Most bandleaders during the '30s and '40s managed to do both, yet the proportionate ratio of real jazz to sugar water has always been a dicey equation. Vol. 1 of The Complete Rhythm Makers Sessions focuses upon the year 1937. The first of the two discs, covering material waxed on March 4th of that year, documents Shaw's persistent reliance upon violins and viola to augment the texture of his band. "Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You" cooks really wonderfully for a little over two minutes, whereupon it simply quits just as the groove becomes fully established. What follows is the prerequisite handful of romantic sugar pop tunes. Amidst Peg LaCentra's recurring lapses into vocalized sentimentality, relief materializes in the form of a string of great instrumental tracks: "Swing High, Swing Low," "Skeleton in the Closet," and "Cream Puff" give way to even more solid material like "Sobbin' Blues," "At Sundown," "Copenhagen," "My Blue Heaven," "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?" (Shaw's clarinet nestled peculiarly among the viols), and Artie's original take on "The Blues."
From this point onward, Shaw stopped using a string section in his band. The difference is immediately evident on the second disc, which covers everything from the session of April 29, 1937. Listening between the vocal tracks, one is able to savor the flavor of Shaw's originals. "Born to Swing," "The Chant," "The Bus Blues," "Ubangi," "In the Bottom," and "Hold Your Hats" are more or less solid vehicles for swing. Raymond Scott's "Twilight in Turkey" is pixilated and Larry Clinton's "Study in Brown" comes across as pleasantly busy, while Harry Warren's majestic mood piece "Night Over Shanghai" extends the Oriental Fox Trot tradition beyond its earlier vintage. There is a tidy treatment of Rodgers & Hart's "Johnny One Note," a marvelously optimistic bounce called "Wake Up and Live," a smart handling of "Someday, Sweetheart," and a terrific stomp by Benny Carter called "Symphony in Riffs." Nevertheless, Jelly Roll Morton's "Milenberg Joys" is without question the prime cut. The second disc ends with an aircheck, which is to say a recording of Shaw's band performing over the radio on April 30, 1937. Listeners hear alternate versions of instrumentals used during the previous day's recording session, along with a gorgeous version of "Night and Day." Each number is introduced by an authentically self-conscious old-fashioned radio announcer.