Count Basie (with Lester Young): Song of the Islands
Song of the Islands
Count Basie (with Lester Young)
America's #1 Band – The Columbia Years (Columbia/Legacy C4K 87110)
Count Basie (piano), Lester Young (tenor sax), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Lester 'Shad' Collins (trumpet), Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet), Ed Lewis (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Benny Morton (trombone), Earle Warren (alto sax), Buddy Tate (tenor sax), Jack Washington (baritone sax, alto sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums),
Dan Minor (trombone).
Recorded: New York, August 4, 1939
Rating: 100/100 (learn more)
I once asked Stan Getz which Lester Young recordings he most admired, and this was the first track he mentioned. I had been deeply immersed in Prez at the time and had been captivated by this same performance, then available as part of my treasured multi-LP Columbia reissue of all Young's recordings, now sadly out of print—but fortunately this gem has been included on a Basie compilation by the label that (unlike so much great music in their archive) can still be purchased. So there is no excuse for fans not to check out this classic performance, which is sadly too seldom heard and unknown even by many jazz devotees.
World War II would break out in Europe exactly four weeks after this session, but you would never guess it from this sweet, lighthearted evocation of a much different kind of Pacific island than the ones jazz-fans-turned-soldiers would soon be "hopping" in full uniform. Lester's tone is beautiful here, and if you have only heard his Verve recordings from the 1950s you might not even recognize it as coming from the same artist. Yes, the war would scar Young too, and this type of oh-so-relaxed phrasing would also become rarer in his playing in future years. But back in 1939, no one else in jazz was improvising with this sense of tranquil nonchalance. What a revelation: that jazz could be so loose and easy. The coherence and thematic integrity of Young's solo is exceptional, with the second eight bars developing what was played in the opening eight—then the band comes in with mocking horns, almost as if they were irritated that a sax could sound so cool.
And here's the kicker: the whole solo is only sixteen bars long. But Prez, pre-eminently among jazz saxophonists, was perfectly suited for these short solos. Hey, sometimes Lady Day only gave him eight bars—so he knew how to make every measure count. How many of today's great jazz soloists could make a complete statement in just a few bars? Maybe they need to start listening to Prez. Certainly Stan Getz was paying attention.
Reviewer: Ted Gioia