Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lester Young: Centennial Celebration

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Centennial Celebration

Concord Records periodically releases “legacy” albums from its huge jazz catalogue, to honor artists whose contributions earned them recognition as icons. Tenor sax artist Lester Young is one of the chosen few.

He was born in 1909 to a musical family. His father taught him to play the trumpet, violin and drums as well as the reed instruments; tenor sax and clarinet became young Lester's favorites. He was part of the “family band” until 1927, when he went out on his own, finally joining Count Basie's ensemble in 1933.

Young became famous with that group, and he changed the tenor sax style forever: from the gutsy, aggressive approach of artists such as Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, to the much more relaxed sound that still exists today. Young was the beginning of “cool.”

This album presents recordings made by Young — nicknamed “Prez” by Billie Holliday — during 1952, '53 and '56. The earlier sessions were done during tours by Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic groups; the latter were done at Olivia Davis' Patio Lounge in Washington, D.C. All the tracks were recorded live.

Longtime jazz fans familiar with Webster and Hawkins will recognize just how different Young was, and that distinction was apparent in his “presentation” as well as his playing. He held the tenor sax in a slanted, rather than vertical position: a characteristic that resulted from having to play at close quarters on crowded bandstands.

A key part of Young's attire was a pork-pie hat, and he was a key originator of the “language” musicians developed. (In those days, he was a “hipster.”)

But he remains admired for his marvelously relaxed and swinging, relatively soft tone. He influenced guys such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn and Gerry Mulligan; listen to this album, then listen to anything they recorded. You'll hear what I mean.

Yes, this album's audio quality isn't what we expect today, but goodness; it was recorded more than 50 years ago! Just settle back and enjoy the mastery of a musician who was that far ahead of his time.

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