Paul Quinichette: Paul's Bunion

His style was so strongly reminiscent of Lester "Prez" Young's, that Paul Quinichette was inevitably dubbed the "Vice Pres." And certainly in a state of national disaster, Mr. Q. could step in and handle tenor solos in some secured and secluded bunker. But don't wait for a succession crisis before checking out this polished and fluid soloist, who deserves a better place in jazz history than his current situation as an acolyte to a brighter star. Here he borrows some Basie cohorts, and improvises with panache over the chord changes to "Too Marvelous for Words." He uses less chromatic color than most saxophonists of the period, but his tone is appealing and his willingness to float over the rhythm section, rather than try to drive it, provided an effective contrast to the de facto approach of the decade. And check out Basie's intro, which seemed to anticipate extreme minimalism long before Reich and Glass arrived on the scene.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lester Young: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Although Lester Young will forever be associated with Kansas City jazz, he came from a Louisiana family and spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, a city he celebrates in this classic track from 1938. It is fascinating to speculate on how much hot music Young might have heard in the Crescent City, back in those days before the first jazz recordings. Some commentators have suggested that Young was inspired by Keppard, Oliver, Armstrong and a host of other jazz pioneers at this time. Yet, based on what we know of Prez's childhood and personality, it is hard to imagine him hanging out at Funky Butt Hall soaking up the sounds of early jazz. The future tenor star was put to work by his family at age five, and took on a host of menial jobs—polishing shoes, selling newspapers and distributing flyers—when he wasn't trying to run away from home (which he did "ten or twelve times" whenever his dad "would raise a belt to him," according to his brother Lee). By the early 1920s, Young had moved on as a member of the family band, but years later he would revisit his New Orleans roots as a sideman in King Oliver's ensemble of the early 1930s.

Can we detect the lingering influence of New Orleans style in Young's later sound? The clarinet, not the tenor saxophone, was the king of the reed instruments in early jazz, and here Young plays both—and in a manner which emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences between the two horns. I love Prez's clarinet work, which reminds us of his New Orleans origins, and wish more of it were available on record, but this is one of his finest tenor solos. Young's early role model, the taken-for-granted sax pioneer Frankie Trumbauer, recorded this same song a decade before Young, and it is interesting to compare their two versions. Young's less syncopated, more fluid phrasing points toward the future of jazz improvisation—but it is to his credit that this low-key revolutionary could do so on a track that also reminds us of the music's (and his own) earliest days.

August 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Fine And Mellow

“I summed up all existence in an epigram,” Oscar Wilde once bragged; Lester Young doesn’t quite capture all existence in his single 36-second blues chorus, but he certainly sums up his entire musical life in those few flawless phrases. Even today, 50 years after his death, Young’s economy is still startling: listening to the busy, swooping Ben Webster solo that precedes him leaves one quite unprepared for what Prez will do.

There is little to add to the legend of Young and Holiday’s last performance together: how they staked out positions on opposite sides of the room during rehearsal, then locked eyes during Young’s broadcast solo as the producers looked on and wept; how they were both ravaged from hard living and would be dead within less than two years. Their art was intact, and for those few minutes on national television, the two old friends and partners once again put light into each other’s lives.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lester Young & Oscar Peterson: Stardust

Lester’s alcoholism had caught up with him by the early ‘50s, robbing him of his prowess on the saxophone. “Stardust” finds his hold on the notes wavering, his gait is stiff and heavy, and he’s audibly blowing much harder to get a sound from his reed. Indeed, there are only glimpses of the recognizable Prez, such as in the first four bars of his second chorus. Nevertheless, Young captures the wistful, dreamy romance of Hoagy Carmichael’s melody, even if it’s a little bit sadder than the nostalgia Carmichael wrote about. The accompaniment is appropriately subtle, too—Oscar Peterson unusually subtle, while Kessel, Brown and Heard spend much of the record in imperceptibility. Like Parker’s “Lover Man,” Young’s “Stardust” is a portrait of an artist at his most tortured, managing to wring fine work out of his own sudden ineptitude.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lester Young: Crazy Over J-Z

Two months before his fortieth birthday, Young is having the time of his life at the Royal Roost—unaware, perhaps, of his impending undoing via his ever-present whiskey bottle. Still, “Crazy Over J-Z” (a reference to New York jazz radio station WJZ) ranks easily with Lester’s work in his prime. Even the heavier touch he’d exhibited just after the war is gone: The sax is merrily agile, dancing over the rhythm section’s comping and darting between horn riffs. He even toys with the new sounds of bebop: Some licks in his responses to the riffs, and one early in his second solo, sound suspiciously like phrases from Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” (Incidentally, behind Young is the early snap-crackle of drummer Roy Haynes, who would in a few months would join Parker’s quintet). The fact that it would go downhill so fast from here may amplify its effects, but either way the record catches Prez in a moment of inspiration.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lester Young: I Want To Be Happy

Many critics and writers still insist that Lester Young’s artistry was in decline when he was dishonorably discharged from the Army in December 1945. “I Want to Be Happy” begs to differ. From the bright introductory phrase of his first solo, it’s clear that Prez still has spring in his step and joy in his phrasing. The only difference to speak of is a breathier tone and a slightly lower pitch—probably more attributable to his use of a plastic reed than to a broken spirit—and they don’t stop him from swinging harder than ever before, especially on his second (closing) solo. No doubt he’s helped along by the impeccable timing of Cole’s piano and the unswerving brilliance of Rich’s drums. Despite his revolution in the ‘30s, it was this postwar period that would be Young’s most successful, and “I Want to Be Happy” shows why.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nat King Cole & Lester Young: Tea For Two

Prez’s Aladdin sessions often sound like they were made in somebody’s garage, but they’re invaluable, documenting his music during a long reprieve from the Count Basie Orchestra. “Tea for Two” features two future stars, 26-year-old bassist Red Callender and 24-year-old pianist Nat “King” Cole, whose jobs are primarily to set Young up and stay out of his way—though Cole gets off a glittering syncopated variation. Young’s sax sound and phrasing, distinctive as ever through the static and tape hiss, is also as adventurous as ever. His mellow tones form startling abstractions that occasionally let a faint trace of the written melody through, but are simply on a higher level than his young journeymen are prepared for: When Young breaks into stop-time during the song’s final third, Cole hardly knows what to do.

Surely it’s no coincidence that the Lester Young Effect would soon dominate the music in that city, first nourishing young L.A. players like Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and later Wardell Gray, then setting the standard for the scene’s new “cool” style. Here we find Lester delivering it to their very doorsteps.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kansas City Six: Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Eddie Durham’s arrangement for this 1922 standard is such a perfect one for the swing era that it should be in every jazz education curriculum in the world. But the fairly simple arrangement is also a deceptive one: trumpet and clarinet play the head together over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but then tenor saxophone and electric guitar erupt in the solos. Doesn’t that make seven, not six? The answer, of course, is that Lester Young plays both sax and clarinet on the record, and it’s no surprise to hear that his clarinet is as distinctive as the tenor—breathy, soft, high, and endlessly lyrical. Interestingly, while Young’s originality continues to flourish in his tenor solo (who knew relaxed rhythms and slightly displaced harmonies could sound so daring?), Clayton’s relentless melodic imagination gives him quite a run for his money. Durham, here playing one of the first electric guitar solos on record, is no slouch on the harmonies, either. Nonetheless, there’s something special about hearing that one of the great instrumental masters had actually mastered two instruments.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

A sort of dry run for the recently signed, but not-yet-recorded Count Basie Orchestra, the “Jones-Smith” session unleashed what could be called the Lester Young Effect. The tenor sax had been hard-driven and cutting in the preceding era of jazz—the world according to Coleman Hawkins—but Young, in his first time at the recording microphone, sounded light and carefully plotted without sacrificing the instrument’s muscle. In truth, Young’s is just one of many innovations heard on “Oh, Lady Be Good”: Basie’s soft-spoken minimalism and Jones’ hi-hat-intensive drumming were also new ground. Still, it’s hard to get past Lester, weaving and bobbing his way through both comps and a featured solo like a helium balloon in the breeze. Jazz would never be the same.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: My One and Only Love

Marketing considerations spurred the pairing of John Coltrane with a vocalist, and the precedents here were not promising. Anyone who remembers Charlie Parker's collaborations with Earl Coleman (whose singing is similar to Hartman's), knows that progressive saxophony and baritone balladry don't always mix. But, against all odds, this pairing not only succeeded but resulted in one of Coltrane's most popular and artistically successful albums. Thousands of saxophonists have played this song, but this will always be the definitive version for most jazz fans. Hartman never sounded better, and Trane offers one of his most heartfelt performances. This is track to share with your friends who are sure that they don't like jazz.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Ventura: My One and Only Love

This is a song every tenor sax player is expected to know nowadays, but Charlie Ventura was the first tenorist to record it as an instrumental ballad back in 1953. The icky sweet orchestral support on this track has not aged well, but Ventura sounds in top form. His opening melody statement is firm and stately, and very much out of the Coleman Hawkins camp, but his solo makes me think Ventura had been spending his early autumn checking out Stan Getz. The coda, in particular, is exquisite in a Four-Brothers-ish sort of way.

This artist, who was working in a shipyard when he was discovered by Gene Krupa in 1942 and three years later won the Downbeat poll on tenor sax, has been largely forgotten by the current generation of jazz fans. But he was a skilled and versatile soloist—Ventura was one of the first Swing Era stars to embrace bop—and deserves a better fate than benign neglect. Sometime, somewhere, when a tenor saxophonist launches into this song, let it be dedicated to Mr. Ventura.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with João Gilberto): Desafinado

Getz's 1962 recording of this composition set the bossa nova craze in motion. But I prefer this 1964 version, hands down, with its authentic Brazilian rhythm section. Authentic? Perhaps historic is a better adjective. João Gilberto invented the bossa beat, and remains its greatest exponent even after a million other guitarists have tinkered with, adapted and outright stolen his stuff. And what could be better than having the composer on piano?

Getz, for his part, makes his contribution sound so free and easy, that it's easy to under-estimate his artistry; even he made light of his achievement—introducing this song in concert as "Dis Here Finado" (an coy allusion to the funky hard bop tunes "Dat Dere" and "Dis Here"), or joking that it was the tune that would put his children through college. But can you imagine another jazz tenorist of the era who could have played this music with such perfect sensitivity to its nuances and inner emotional life? Let 'Trane have his "Giant Steps" and Rollins his late night bridge heroics; ah, but beachfront property never loses it value, and there is a stretch of it down Copacabana and Ipanema way that Getz will always own.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with Chick Corea): Litha

Stan Getz's name is often linked with that of Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and other disciples of Lester Young who came of age in the period following World War II. But Getz always had a more daring temperament than these others, and greater willingness to put himself in unfamiliar settings, trusting that his musical instincts would guide him through unscathed. And, unfailingly, they did just that.

Getz's occasional collaborations with Chick Corea are a case in point. Corea was himself in the midst of a fertile period of experimentation and threw many curveballs at the tenorist, including proto-fusion and neo-Latin charts. Getz was on the heels of his own huge bossa nova success and could have easily continued in that vein indefinitely, but here he digs into Corea's intricate "Litha," which includes meter changes (6/8 to fast 4/4), modal interludes and some unconventional harmonic movement. Needless to say, nothing in Getz's formative experience with Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman or even Woody Herman prepared him for this. No matter . . . Stan positively flies over this chart as if he had written it himself.

This is exhilarating music. The rhythm section of Corea-Carter-Tate is as good as any Getz would ever employ; they challenge the leader at every step along the way, and he asserts himself in return. In short, there is not the slightest touch of saudade anywhere on this track. I wish Getz had undertaken more sessions of this sort, but I am grateful this one took place before Corea went off into fusion-land and the tenorist went through his own period of musical redefinition in the late 1960s and 1970s.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: Blood Count (1982 studio version)

Billy Strayhorn wrote it; Duke Ellington recorded it; but make no mistake—Stan Getz owned this song. In the 1980s, Getz performed it at almost every concert, and if the acoustics were right, he would turn off the mikes and render it un-amplified. I lost count of how many times I heard him play it, but I know that, without fail, this song left the listeners mesmerized by its poignancy.

I even performed it with Stan, and matched my piano part to what McNeely plays on this track—since Getz's approach to this song was not about improvisation. Instead, playing this composition again and again, he seemed to be seeking a quasi-ritualistic revisiting of some primal experience. On this studio version, as in concert, he never departs far from the written melody. Getz's whole attitude—not just to music, but to life—was about improvisation, yet I never once heard him take a real solo over these changes. He might briefly allow his horn to stray from Strayhorn's line, for a fill or ornamentation, but would always come back to it. I think he would have considered an extended solo on this piece some sort of sacrilege. Instead, I sensed him reaching for what Kierkegaard talks about with his metaphysical concept of Repetition, a return to the same that is the antithesis of sameness.

This had been Strayhorn's final composition, written shortly before his death from esophageal cancer. This exquisitely crafted piece is one of the composer's most multilayered efforts, its power rising from the tension between the surface elegance and the submerged anguish of the music. Getz's interpretation took on added poignancy as his own health started failing during the course of the decade. One couldn't help hearing Stan confronting his own mortality as he returned to this piece night after night.

What a testimony to the focus musicality of this artist, that he could channel so much of his own inner life into a mere melody statement—and not even a melody he had written—and communicate it to every member of the audience. If you haven't heard it, you need to. Check out either this studio version, or the later live performance in Copenhagen. Against the backdrop of a career chock full of memorable tracks, both classic and commercial, Getz delivered one here for the ages.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with Bob Brookmeyer): Rustic Hop

In the mid-1980s, Stan Getz helped raise money for his own salary as artist-in-residence at Stanford University by giving one concert per quarter. He brought in a host of guest artists for these events, including Bob Brookmeyer, who showed up on campus to meet students, rehearse the campus jazz band (I still recall him exhorting the horns to play with more energy—repeating the advice "make BIG mistakes" as though it were some strange mantra from a new religion), and then pair up with Getz for a concert in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

For their gig, Stan and Bob played a number of charts they had recorded more than thirty years earlier. After the performance, I expressed my surprise to Brookmeyer that Stan played all the compositions, some of them quite intricate, without looking at any music. After all, Getz had recorded these charts before I was born, and the Stanford concert was a one-time event—yet Getz dug into these pieces as though they were on his set list every night. Brookmeyer shrugged his shoulders and commented "Well, that's Stan Getz."

The Brookmeyer partnership was just one of many musical relationships for Getz during the mid-1950s. The Cool Sounds album finds him in five different line-ups. But the interplay with the valve trombonist is especially effective. The chemistry between Getz and Brookmeyer is in the same league as those other ultra-cool period pairings: Mulligan & Baker, Marsh & Konitz, Sims & Cohn, heck maybe even Bogart and Bacall. Hear Getz riffing behind Brookmeyer's solo, then starting his own improvisation with a variant of the same riff before launching into a slick, thematically-cohesive workout over the changes. Getz was a master at these medium-up tempos, and knew better than any tenorist of his generation how to be hot and sweet at the same time. I can't find much rusticity in this "Rustic Hop"—which sounds to me more like a joyride in city traffic—but it does keep hopping for the duration. A stirring example of a band that could have been far more influential if it had stayed together longer.

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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