Best Jazz Albums: Lester Young
By Scott Yanow
Musically and personally, Lester Young (1909-59) stood apart from the crowd. Back in the 1930s, during an era when nearly all tenor players sounded like a relative of Coleman Hawkins who with his large sound and harmonically complex style made the tenor-sax into a major instrument, Young emerged with a light tone and a subtle floating style that swung just as hard but at a quieter volume.
The “Kansas City” Sessions (Commodore)
This Commodore CD features Lester Young as a sideman with two versions of the Kansas City Six. The earlier group date from 1938 is included on this single-CD in full. Also on this disc are four songs by a harder-driving Kansas City Six group from 1944, with trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dickie Wells, that has Wells in particular playing at the peak of his powers, and four songs from a Kansas City Five group that precedes the earlier date.
Recorded Mar. 16, 1938, this historic session is most notable for the early electric guitar playing of Eddie Durham which precedes Charlie Christian’s recorded debut by a year.
The Complete Lester Young On Keynote
Lester Young left the Basie band in late-1940 but, despite his fame in the jazz world, his solo career got off to a slow start. His working combo made no commercial recordings and his only studio date of 1941-42 was a trio session with pianist Nat King Cole. He rejoined the Basie orchestra in 1943 for a year and then ironically while still with Basie, began to record as a leader.
This CD includes two sessions from 1943-44. The first one has Young joined by pianist Johnny Guarnieri, bassist Slam Stewart, and drummer Sid Catlett for four numbers: swinging versions of “Just You, Just Me,” “Afternoon Of A Basie-ite,” and “I Never Knew” plus an absolutely charming version of “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The latter (with Stewart singing along with his bowed bass) is one of those rare recordings where every note is perfect. The ending of Young’s solo has been quoted by many other artists through the years.
Also on this release is a set by the 1944 version of the Kansas City Seven. Young is teamed with the Count Basie rhythm section (including Basie who used the pseudonym of “Prince Charming” in an attempt to hide his identity), Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells. “Lester Leaps Again,” a remake of the tenor’s earlier “Lester Leaps In,” is a notable showcase for Pres.
The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Lester Young
Lester Young reluctantly left the Basie band in 1944 when he was drafted, and he had a horrific year in the Army where he was subject to racism and mental cruelty. The stereotyped legend is that after he was discharged in 1945, he never played at the level of his earlier triumphs. While his state of mind was affected to an extent, Young actually made some of his finest recordings after getting out of the military, and his playing grew in emotional intensity while he still retained his classic sound.
The two-CD Aladdin set has some of Pres’ most rewarding recordings. His 1942 trio set with Nat King Cole and bassist Red Callender is included along with a little-known sideman date with singer Helen Humes from 1945.
Otherwise, the performances feature Young at the head of combos that range from five to seven pieces. While trumpeter Shorty McConnell is on some of the sessions, one of the best dates, teams Young with trombonist Vic Dickenson, and there is a set with Dickenson, altoist Willie Smith and trumpeter Howard McGhee, Pres is the main star throughout.
Lester Young adapts himself well to the boppish rhythm sections (which include Argonne Thornton, Dodo Marmarosa, or Joe Albany on piano) and makes memorable statements on such numbers as “D.B. Blues,” “Sunday,” “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” (his best-known original), “Easy Does It.” and even a song called “Lester’s Be Bop Boogie.”
The Lester Young-Buddy Rich Trio (Verve)
In 1946, producer Norman Granz teamed together Lester Young, pianist Nat King Cole, and drummer Buddy Rich as a trio on eight numbers.
Since Cole was signed to the Capitol label, his identity was disguised, and he was listed as “Aye Guy.” On seven standards (including “I Cover The Waterfront,” “I’ve Found A New Baby” and “Mean To Me”) plus Young’s “Back To The Land,” the trio plays beautifully.
With the absence of a string bass, Cole gamely fills in with his left hand, altering his swing style a little. Rich plays with subtlety, allowing the interplay between Young and Cole to be in the spotlight.
Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve)
While Lester Young’s health gradually declined in the 1950s and he had his off days, when he was inspired and reasonably healthy, he was capable of playing at the peak of his powers.
Serious jazz collectors will want to search for the 8-CD set The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve. That box has the earlier 1946 Nat Cole trio session and all of Young’s Norman Granz-produced sets for Mercury and Norgran (later owned by Verve) plus alternate takes, false starts, and a fascinating interview from late in his life. Not all of the recordings are classic due to the tenor’s health but this package gives one a full picture.
However those listeners who want to simply hear Lester Young at his best will probably prefer to get his Verve CD with the Oscar Peterson Trio; pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown plus drummer J.C. Heard.
Along with his “Ad-Lib Blues,” Pres is featured caressing some of his favorite melodies and, pushed by Peterson, he consistently comes up with many wonderful choruses full of fresh variations. Young’s phrasing and note placements on the themes of such songs as “Just You, Just Me,” “Almost Like Being In Love,” “There Will Never Be Another You” (taken at a medium-slow pace), “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is on the level of Louis Armstrong’s in the 1930s. He alters the melodies just slightly, making them sound new and very personal.
Pres and Sweets (Verve)
In Nov. 1955, Young teamed up with his old friend trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison from the Basie band plus the Oscar Peterson Trio (with Herb Ellis on guitar) and Buddy Rich for the Pres and Sweets album.
“Mean To Me,” “Pennies From Heaven” and “One O’ Clock Jump” are among the songs uplifted on this swinging set during which Young seems in a particularly happy mood. The atmosphere of this set is a bit surprising considering that, later that month, Lester Young had a nervous breakdown.
The Jazz Giants ’56 (Verve)
Pres and Teddy (Verve)
Lester Young was hospitalized in Nov. 1955 with his breakdown being partly caused by excessive drinking and a general state of depression. But after a relatively brief hospital stay, he emerged in better health and spirits than he had enjoyed in some time. 1956 ended up being his last great year, a development that can be heard on his recordings, most notably The Jazz Giants ’56 (from Jan. 12) and the following day’s Pres and Teddy.
The Jazz Giants ’56 lives up to its name by having Young joined by trumpeter Roy Eldridge, trombonist Vic Dickenson, pianist Teddy Wilson, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Jo Jones.
They perform three ballads, an excellent rendition of “You Can Depend On Me,” and an explosive version of “Gigantic Blues.” While Young at this point was not playing up-tempo material very often, he not only holds his own with the fiery Eldridge on “Gigantic Blues” but excels in this very friendly setting with his fellow swing greats.
Pres and Teddy finds Lester Young returning to the studio along with Wilson, Ramey and Jones for a relaxed session. Pres puts plenty of feeling into the set of standards, plus his own “Pres Returns”, with “Prisoner Of Love” and “All Of Me” being among the highpoints.
At this point in time, a large number of top tenor-saxophonists were not shy to display the influence of Lester Young, including Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Paul Quinichette. One of his great musical admirers, Brew Moore was quoted as saying “Anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong.”
Laughin’ to Keep From Cryin’ (Verve)
Lester Young’s health resumed its decline in 1957 and he became weaker due to the excessive alcohol and his rather sparse diet. While his appearance on “Fine And Mellow” with Billie Holiday during the television special The Sound Of Jazz stole the show, in reality it was only a one-chorus solo and his planned participation during the show was shortened due to his health. Lester Young passed away on Mar. 15, 1959 when he was still just 49.
Pres’ next to last studio album is worth a listen. He is joined by both Roy Eldridge and Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpets, pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist George Duvivier, and drummer Mickey Sheen. While Young was clearly in failing health, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” is a given a happy treatment and he takes an inventive solo on “Gypsy In My Soul.”
A special aspect of this set is that, for the first time since the late 1930s, Lester Young is heard on clarinet. While “Salute To Benny” is fine, his heartfelt, tentative, and emotional statement on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is arguably his last great recorded solo. While it is full of regret and quiet sadness, Lester Young makes every note and every breath count, showing why even during his last days, he was still the Pres.