With his airy, vibratoless tone and sophisticated harmonic imagination, Lester Young (1909-59) was arguably the most influential tenor saxophonist after Coleman Hawkins
. As the star in Count Basie
's big band and Billie Holiday
's favorite soloist, Young's breezy solos, along with his patented porkpie hat and unique hipster jargon, affected legions of musicians. This 8-CD compilation marks the 90th anniversary of Young's birth and contains all of the recordings he made for producer Norman Granz from 1946 to 1959, the last 13 years of Young's life. This collection aurally illustrates his supernatural ability to enliven the most familiar pop tunes and rise above his own pharmaceutically challenged physical state to create magic. The keys to Young's music making is his emphasis on knowing the lyrics to songs and on telling a story, delivering a melodic solo that communicates as it innovates.
Composed primarily of small combos, these tracks' themes are set by the piano players. Nat King Cole's walking bass lines and drummer Buddy Rich's pepperings cushion Young's Icarusian flights on "I Cover the Waterfront," "The Man I Love," and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." On "I Found a New Baby" Young's delivery previews the bebop of Charlie Parker and on "Too Marvelous for Words" Young's subtones echo the long, tall sounds of Dexter Gordon. A quartet with pianist John Lewis, drummer and Basie bandmate Jo Jones, and bassist Gene Ramey offers similar results with Young's poetic versions of the riff tune "Neenah" and "Three Little Words," with Lewis's telepathic comping. Oscar Peterson's supersonic style, Barney Kessel's guitar, bassist Ray Brown, and percussionist J.C. Heard light a fire under Young on the down-home "Ad Lib Blues" and "It Takes Two to Tango"--with Young's hilarious vocal. With another quintet featuring Gildo Mahones at the keys and Connie Kay at the traps, Young revisits his days with Count Basie on the festive "Jumpin' at the Woodside." Another Basie bandmate, Harry "Sweets" Edison, lends his territory-toned chops to the hit "One O'Clock Jump." On "You Can Depend on Me" and "Gigantic Blues" Roy Eldridge's hot trumpet and Vic Dickenson's muscular trombone provide the perfect counterpoint to Young's ethereal excursions. The two takes of "St. Tropez" are the only recordings with Young on clarinet, and the leader delves into Latin jazz on "Frenesi," "In a Little Spanish Town," and "Another Mambo."
By the time he made his last sessions in Paris in 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Rene Urtreger, Young had lost his technical luster, but he gained a deep spiritual presence, as evidenced by the haunting takes on "I Cover the Waterfront" and "Oh, Lady, Be Good." The noted jazz author John Chilton's biographical essay, along with Harry "Sweets" Edison's loving memoir, Dave Gelly's musicological analysis, and two recorded interviews with Young are detailed, profane, and informative. But Bryan Koniarz's "Hipster's Dictionary" of Young's slang steals the show. From the Lestorian lexicon we get words like "Far Out" for guitarist Slim Gaillard, "little claps" for applause, and "Lady Day" for Billie Holiday, who in turn named the great saxophonist "Prez," for he was the commander in chief of jazz. --Eugene Holley Jr.
Some claim Lester Young was as great a soloist at 48 as he was at 28. Don't buy it. Prez's best work was done when he was between 27 and 32 (1936 to '41). During these years, he played with unsurpassed grace and youthfulness. He made a number of fine records after that, but gradually declined until his death in 1959.
After leaving Count Basie in December, 1940, Young began to record more slow-tempoed selections and blues. His tone thickened, he used the lower register more, and swung less buoyantly. From the mid '40s on, he employed odd intervals, which gave his work an eccentric quality. In his last years, Young used a breathy vibrato, which, on ballads, made him sound like Ben Webster.
This eight-CD set contains the bulk of the recordings Young cut from 1949 to 1959 plus a 1946 trio session with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich, which is nice, but not in a class with the stuff he recorded with Rich and bassist Red Callendar in 1941. He also appears in quartets, quintets, and sextets with musicians including Hank Jones, John Lewis, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, and Kenny Clarke.
Given Young's physical condition, which was deteriorating due to heavy drinking and severe depression, it's almost surprising that he plays as well as he does here. But generally, his early '50s playing is laudable. He turns in fine solos on ballads (1953's "Can't We Be Friends"), blues (1951's "Undercover Girl Blues"), and uptempo numbers (1951's "In a Little Spanish Town").
Around 1955, though, his work became more repetitive, economical, and less inventive. At times, it's downright listless. He displays far less energy than his contemporaries, Wilson, Eldridge, and Edison. However, his last recorded solos are strangely moving, giving us an aural portrait of a dying man.
Also contained on this set are two recorded interviews with Young. These are sometimes humorous, full of Young's patented slang, but ultimately extremely bitter.
--- Harvy Pekar, JAZZIZ Magazine Copyright © 2000, Milor Entertainment, Inc. -- From Jazziz