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JazzTimes 10: Lester Young

Sixty years after his passing, we remember 10 of the President’s best recordings


Published 03/16/2019 By Michael J. West
1. Jones-Smith, Incorporated: “Shoe Shine Boy” (Lester Young with Count Basie: The Columbia, Okeh & Vocalion Sessions [1936-1940] Vol. 1,Columbia/Legacy, 2008 [originally recorded Nov. 9, 1936])

Lester Young passed away 60 years ago, on March 15, 1959. He was one of the most profound figures of genius to ever grace the music world. His eccentricities alone were earthshaking, from his love of porkpie hats to his skewed playing stance to his self-invented slang (from which we probably get the term “cool”). It’s the music, though, that continues to resonate the most, much of it still as contemporary today as it was in the 1930s, when Young was at his peak. It’s never a bad time to revisit his body of work, but this anniversary provides a convenient occasion. (Note that this list is chronological. There is no nitpicking a rank for this kind of greatness.)

Lester Young was already a masterpiece.

The very first recording of Lester Young was already a masterpiece. The tenor saxophone world belonged in 1936 to Coleman Hawkins, he of the intricate, heavy, deadly serious sound that bore down like a dreadnought. In that context, the effect of Young’s effervescent tone, seeming as it did to float over the rollicking rhythmic momentum of Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones, is impossible to understate. Likewise for a line that, if it wasn’t as complex as Hawk’s, was nearly delirious in its bounce. It also sounds spontaneous throughout, even in the obviously prearranged hit on the accents with Jones (though not so prearranged that Jones doesn’t fluff a beat). Not incidentally, King Coleman was off conquering Europe at the time; in his absence, “Shoe Shine Boy” served as Young’s formal challenge for the crown.

Stun Your Readers

Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra: “Without Your Love”

2. Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra: “Without Your Love” (Billie Holiday + Lester Young: A Musical Romance, Columbia/Legacy, 2002 [originally recorded June 15, 1937])

Young’s recorded legacy with Billie Holiday began just weeks after the Jones-Smith session. “Without Your Love” is from their fourth studio outing together, and an exquisite example of the synergy shared between Pres and Lady Day (the nicknames they gave each other, which would be adopted by the wider jazz world). The saxophonist’s solo space comes at the very beginning of the record: three bars and change. From there his role becomes that of Holiday’s shadow. Each of her lines gets a silky-smooth underscore, and where Billie is a bit of a belter in these early days, Young’s phrases are cool and sinuous. Even as the track closes, and the other two horn players (trumpeter Buck Clayton and clarinetist Edmond Hall) throw some more juice into the mix, Young is relaxed, detached, and thoroughly beautiful.

3. The Kansas City Six: “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (The “Kansas City” Sessions, Commodore/GRP/Verve, 1997 [originally recorded Sept. 15, 1938])

Along with his splendid tenor solo, Pres plays clarinet on this tune’s opening theme and closing counterpoint. (It’s worth remembering that he grew up in New Orleans; that kind of polyphony was mother’s milk to him.) Drawn from the Basie band, this small-group session is a master class in relaxed swing, with Young’s tenor as the centerpiece. It’s a remarkable solo even for him. As “hollow” as his sound is sometimes called, here it leaves no room for disruption. Now that he’s got your attention, he pulls the harmony just slightly outside on his passing tones; behind him, guitarist Freddie Green at one point goes into a slide to catch it. The melodic structure is wonderful, unfailingly swinging and romantic. That Young then exchanges the sax for the clarinet to duel with Buck Clayton is the icing on the cake.

4. Count Basie Orchestra: “Jive at Five” (Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings, Decca/GRP/Verve, 1992 [originally recorded Feb. 4, 1939])

The critic Martin Williams wrote of Young’s melodic genius that “Perhaps the great example … is his playing on ‘Jive at Five.’ Every phrase of that beautiful solo has been imitated and fed back to us a hundred times in other contexts by Lester’s followers.” It’s not hard to see why. The first 16 bars of his chorus are perfection, the kind of effortless lyricism that a listener commits to memory without even trying. Young yields the floor to Clayton for a somewhat seamier bridge solo, then returns on the home stretch as if he’d never stopped. Thousands of saxophonists would expend chorus after chorus trying to attain the flawlessness that Young here achieves in less than one.

5. Count Basie & His Orchestra: “Taxi War Dance” (Count Basie 1936 – 1939, Vol. 2, Broken Audio, 2012 [originally recorded Mar. 19, 1939])

“Taxi War Dance” is a head arrangement on the changes of “Willow Weep for Me.” Credited to Basie-Young, in all probability it’s mostly Young’s. His is the first solo, and it’s a brilliant feint. He plays what seems to be a luscious, concise 12-bar blues … and then it continues for another four bars and veers into a new chord. It’s not a blues at all, but Young knew how to make it one anyway—then how to bring it back home. In the second half he returns to trade fours with the ensemble, including one masterful phrase in which Young does the trick so often attributed to Basie: swinging on one note.

6. Sam Price & His Texas Bluesicians: “The Goon Drag (Gone Wid de Goon)” (Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic, 2016 [originally recorded Apr. 3, 1941])

Young had left the Count Basie Orchestra in December 1940, spending the next three years co-leading a band with his drummer brother Lee, starting a trio with pianist Nat “King” Cole, and freelancing with the likes of Sam Price & His Texas Bluesicians (who, despite the name, were based in New York). None of the soloists on this date takes more than eight bars, Pres included. What’s fascinating about this tune, though, is how hard alto saxophonist Don Stovall and pianist Price (who take the first and second solo) work to play Lester-like statements—succinct, light-toned, with phrases both streamlined and rich in melody. Then, of course, Pres takes the mike and effortlessly outdoes them both.

7. Lester Young Trio: “Somebody Loves Me” (Lester Young Trio, Mercury, 1951 [originally recorded spring 1946])

It would be hard for anyone to resist the irrepressibility of both the Gershwin melody and the rhythm section—pianist Nat Cole and drummer Buddy Rich. On the one hand, Young doesn’t resist them at all, and the spring in his step is apparent. On the other, though, there’s a new weight to his playing in his first of two solos, a gravitas that would only grow more prominent over the years. (Perhaps in 1946 it merely seemed that way, placed as he was next to musicians 10 years younger than he; there’s certainly no shortage of joie de vivre in Cole’s solo.) But Pres is still Pres; his melody and swing are intact, the blues is still everywhere, and by the time of his second solo he seems to have shaken off whatever mood had struck him on the first one.

8. Lester Young and His Orchestra: “Crazy Over JZ” (Blue Lester, Savoy Jazz, 2005 [originally recorded June 28, 1947])

By 1947, bebop had firmly established itself as the new wave in jazz. But Pres wasn’t about to be consigned to a museum; he had played a major role in bebop’s development, a regular at the famous Minton’s jam sessions and a formative influence on nearly all the important bop saxophonists. “Crazy Over JZ” (a shout-out to New York radio station WJZ) is a magnificent reckoning with jazz language old and new. Young introduces the song with a Louis Armstrong lick, then moves into his own signature phrasing—a signifier of the fading swing era, but also the source that beboppers were then refining for their own vocabulary. Behind him, the horns play riffs straight out of the big bands, while the rhythm section lays down frenetic modern grooves. (At the kit was none other than 24-year-old Roy Haynes.) He still had 10 years left, but “Crazy Over JZ” served as a valediction: proof positive of how a vital a link he was in the jazz chain.

9. Lester Young Quartet: “D.B. Blues” (Lester Young in Washington, D.C., 1956, Volume One, Original Jazz Classics, 1993 [originally recorded Dec. 7, 1956])

The ’50s were a rough time for Lester Young, as his longtime alcoholism caught up with him and led to a dissipation both musical and personal. His recordings were wildly inconsistent, and he was finally hospitalized in late 1955. However, a year later, playing with a local pickup band in Washington, D.C., he is close to the top of his game. “D.B. Blues,” an original that Pres had first recorded in 1945 (and named for the Detention Barracks in which he’d been confined before his dishonorable discharge from the Army), had a form that became the template for rock & roll: three blues choruses, with an eight-bar bridge (based on the one from “I Got Rhythm”) between the second and third. All told, Young plays five choruses of this form, three of them improvised—which translates to nine perfect, deep-in-the-well blues choruses.

10. Billie Holiday with the Mal Waldron All-Stars: “Fine and Mellow” (Billie Holiday: The Essentials, Vol. 2 [1936-1958], Jube Pops, 2015 [originally recorded Dec. 8, 1957])

There is little to add to the legend of this performance from the 1957 CBS-TV special The Sound of Jazz: how Young and Holiday hadn’t spoken in years, how they kept their distance from each other during the rehearsals for the broadcast, how the ailing Young was coaxed at the last minute to stand for his solo during Holiday’s blues “Fine and Mellow,” how they locked eyes during Pres’ single 12-bar chorus. “The solo is so solidly constructed,” wrote critic Gary Giddins, “that after you’ve heard it a couple of times, it becomes part of your nervous system, like the motor skills required to ride a bicycle.” The Sound of Jazz had an accompanying LP release, but Young’s solo there is distant, phoned-in; the TV version is hard to find on record, but easily worth the effort.

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