Pee Wee Russell: That Old Feeling
That Old Feeling
Pee Wee Russell (clarinet)
Portrait of Pee Wee (Essential Media Group; reissue, 2007)
Nat Pierce (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), Karl Kiffe (drums).
Composed by Lew Brown & Sammy Fain. Arranged by Nat Pierce.
Recorded: New York, February 18-19, 1958
Rating: 91/100 (learn more)
Journalists in the 1950s adored Pee Wee Russell as much for his looks (think dyspeptic basset hound with a mustache) as for his musicianship. The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, for example, found in Russell one of the 20th century's classic physiognomies. "When he plays, this already striking facial arrangement, which is overlaid with an endless grille of wrinkles and furrows, becomes knotted into grimaces of pain, as if the music were pulling unbearably tight an inner drawstring." With a face that was prose poetry just begging to be transcribed, is it any wonder that Pee Wee's musicianship became almost an afterthought?
Yet when he summons forth "That Old Feeling," Pee Wee demonstrates that while the clarinet may be a wooden instrument, it needn't be played woodenly. True, Russell stuck to the middle register, with an occasional dip into chalumeau waters, and his breathy tone and warbling vibrato would've rendered a clarinet teacher aghast. But like latter-day Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Pee Wee more than compensated for his technical limitations with savvy, grace and originality. Some artists are so transcendently expressive that their lack of virtuosity itself becomes a virtue.
"That Old Feeling" was introduced in the movie Vogues of 1938, by which time Russell was in his early 30s, had been recording for more than a decade, performed with such luminaries as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke, and taken up residence at Nick's, the now-legendary Greenwich Village nightspot. Yet Pee Wee Russell himself was never really in vogue. He was an acquired taste whom most jazz fans declined to acquire, especially during the Swing Era, when such spectacular practitioners as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw ruled the roost. Decimated by alcoholism, Russell's health declined during the 1940s to near death in 1951. But Pee Wee slowly recovered. Eventually he found himself subject to renewed interest, thanks largely to his endearing fragility on CBS-TV's 1957 all-star special The Sound of Jazz, where—like a lovingly restored scarecrow—he kept wobbly company with, on the one hand, such trad veterans as Henry "Red" Allen, and on the other hand with his modernist alter ego, Jimmy Giuffre. Only 51 but looking 100, Pee Wee reminded us of the eccentric uncle in everybody's closet who is let out once a year to wow the neighborhood kids with rusty magic tricks half-remembered from his vaudeville days.
On this 1958 track, Pee Wee's stalwart sympathizers include the warmly lyrical tenorman Bud Freeman and sly-boots trombonist Vic Dickenson. These old smoothies could no more go wrong with "That Old Feeling" than listeners can with Pee Wee Russell.
Reviewer: Alan Kurtz