Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Many superlatives have been lavished on the so-called "Tatum Group Masterpieces"—Norman Granz's mid-1950s recordings of the pianist in a range of jazz combos featuring many of the leading players of the Swing Era. Yet much of this work strikes me as the musical equivalent of an abattoir tour. Too many of these guest artists decide that they will match Tatum's speed and technique with their own best virtuoso devices, and the result is all too predictable. Not only can the pianist play faster and wilder, but he often refuses to wait for his own solo to prove it. His comping takes over the performance, leaving the rest of the band rattled and the listener dismayed. Tatum may walk away with the bloody victory, but at the expense of group chemistry and cohesion.

But Ben Webster knew how to deal with this situation. He refuses to play Tatum's game, but sets his own ground rules from the start. The pianist takes the opening melody statement, but when Webster enters he plays the melody again, and his rendition is gorgeous, full of the whispering and lingering tones that were the tenorist's calling cards. His solo is more of the same, and gets deep inside the inner meaning of the song—the lyrics are a bittersweet pledge of love to an imagined ideal partner who may never appear, or might possibly be waiting around the corner. I was so moved when I first heard this recording, years ago, that I learned the words and music of the song and added it to my repertoire.

Tatum came to every session with plenty of ammunition, but Webster has effectively disarmed him. The saxophonist has established a level of emotional honesty that forces the pianist into a completely different frame of mind. Strange to say, Art Tatum comes across more introspective and subdued here than on any of the other group sessions, and reveals aspects of his own musical personality that rarely surfaced on record. His comping stays in the background—never a given with this artist—and when it's time for his own improv, Tatum plays with a light swing that seems almost Nat-King-Cole-ish. This is not a characteristic performance by the pianist, but it is, nonetheless, one of his finest.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Ben Webster, who idolized Art Tatum, thought that the album he made with the virtuoso pianist in 1956 was his best ever. Of course, Webster also felt that on this date Tatum "really accompanied me. He continued: I believe that was a sign that he appreciated my playing, because I know certain records with other musicians where he just played on, from the beginning of the piece all the way to the end." Said producer Norman Granz: "During the session with Art Tatum, Art just could not get Ben to speed up. Ben just did his own thing. So up to a point, Art adapted to Ben there."

"My Ideal" seems to confirm the observations of both Webster and Granz. Tatum's initial rendition of the melody is, for him, sparse and restrained, containing embellishments that are far from ornate. Webster's subsequent playing of the theme is lifted by his broad, somewhat gruff, and cavernous tone, not unlike that of Coleman Hawkins, while Tatum's comping is focused and judicious. The tempo accelerates for Webster's solo, where the tenor's legato phrasing is unaffected, enticing, and to the point. Tatum's improvisation continues his relatively understated approach, with his technically marvelous runs still not nearly as convoluted as they often tended to become. Webster returns for the theme, again with Tatum offering complementary support rather than competing commentary. Here's a Tatum group track where the supporting efforts of a bassist and drummerRed Callender and Bill Douglassnot only are noticed, but can be appreciated as well.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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