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Reviewers: Don Mather, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby



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Lester Young
Lester Leaps Again: Original Recordings 1942-1944
Naxos Jazz Legends, 8.120764


 


 

1. Tea for Two
2. I Can’t Get Started
3. Body and Soul
4. Indiana
5. Just You, Just Me
6. I Never Knew
7. Afternoon of a Basie-tie
8. Sometimes I’m Happy
9. After Theatre Jump
10. Six Cats and a Prince
11. Lester Leaps Again
12. Destination K.C.
13. Indiana
14. Blue Lester
15. (I Don’t Stand A) Ghost of a Chance
16. Lester’s Savoy Jump
Tracks 1-4: Lester young (tenor sax); Nat King Cole (piano); Red Callender (bass)
Tracks 5-8: Lester Young (tenor sax); Johnny Guarnieri (piano); Slam Stewart (bass); Sid Catlett (drums)
Tracks 9, 10 and 12: Buck Clayton (trumpet); Dickie Wells (trombone); Lester Young (tenor sax); Count Basie (piano); Freddie Green (guitar); Rodney Richardson (bass); Jo Jones (drums)
Track 11: Lester Young (tenor sax); Count Basie (piano); Freddie Green (guitar); Rodney Richardson (bass); Jo Jones (drums)
Tracks 13-16: Lester Young (tenor sax); Count Basie (piano); Freddie Green (guitar); Rodney Richardson (bass); Shadow Wilson (drums)

While Lester Young was developing his style, Coleman Hawkins was the leading figure when it came to the tenor sax. Bold, powerful and crammed full of notes, his approach was copied by numerous saxophonists, who added little of interest to the sound. Young, however, had different tone - light, sparse and highly relaxed, with a tendency to float over bar lines. Whilst technically skilled, and adept at reading music, his sound was considered to be so revolutionary that he didn’t fit in in many of the bands he played with in his early days. By the beginning of the 1940s, however - after leaving Count Basie’s Orchestra - Young had developed a reputation as one of jazz’s leading musicians, and remains to this day amongst the most influential saxophonists of all time.

This collection kicks off in 1942 with a number of tracks recorded in a trio with Nat King Cole and bassist Red Callender. ‘Tea for Two’ provides a nice introduction, setting the cool, light-hearted tone that prevails throughout the rest of the work. The trio gel magnificently together, displaying beautiful rhythmic control and maintaining a feel of quiet intensity. Young sounds relaxed on the following ballads (‘I Can’t Get Started’ and ‘Body and Soul’), but plays with obvious thought and reflection, rejecting unnecessary, clumsy embellishments. Cole, throughout it all, is impressive - not simply virtuosic, but tender and sensitive too.

We then move on to December of that year, when ‘Pres’ had one of his best record dates. Joined by an excellent rhythm section - pianist Johnny Guarnieri, bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Sid Catlett - we hear him in fantastic form, laid back as usual but swinging hard. ‘Just You, Just Me’ oozes charm, with Young letting go on his joyful runs, and filling each note with his personality. Stewart and Guarnieri are also impressive, particularly on their highly charismatic solos. An amazing connection exists in this group, which draws out consistently creative work. Young’s performance on ‘I Never Knew’ is his most expressive so far, experimenting with the melodic structure and challenging the rhythmic steadiness of the piece. Catlett then adds to this new-found freedom on his bold and inventive drum solo, which Stewart fleshes out with intense interludes of bowed bass and humming.

The other two sessions featured on the disc have Young accompanied by various key members of the original Count Basie Orchestra. With trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Dickie Wells he leads the way through three originals (‘After Theatre Jump’, ‘Six Cats and a Prince’ and ‘Destination K.C.’) that seep charisma and make no disguise of the musicians having a lot of fun. ‘Lester Leaps Again’, then, shows him at his best, tackling the impressive blues groove with tremendous ease and control. It is Basie, however, who takes the tune in to unexpected territory, filling his solo with repeated phrasing and strange, fragmented chords. This, in turn, causes Rodney Richardson to really let go on bass, continuing to climb and climb on his solo, soaring insanely high.

Forty days later, Young was back in the studio playing another four numbers with a slightly altered Basie rhythm section (drummer Shadow Wilson had taken Jo Jones’s place when Jones was drafted). ‘Ghost of a Chance’ is particularly notable for its strong sense of mood and emotional depth. But it is Young’s ‘Blue Lester’ that illustrates best how far the young saxophonist had come. Lyrical, haunting and drenched in cool, it’s fantastic melody sends shivers down the spine with each unexpected turn.

So it seemed in 1944 that Young’s creativity would continue to flourish - particularly after he featured in the Academy Award-winning film, Jammin’ the Blues. But the draft board eventually caught up with him too, and the next year proved an horrendous time; unable to adapt to his new way of life, he found himself locked in a military prison. Gradually, Young returned to form - at least as far as his playing was concerned. But depression and excessive consumption of alcohol began to take their toll on his health, and robbed him of his zest for life. Whilst the 1950s saw some high points, nothing compared to this earlier work. As Scott Yanow puts it in the album’s linear notes, ‘Some of Lester Young’s happiest moments on record are contained in this definitive collection, taken from a musical golden age when Young was truly the President of the tenor sax.’

Robert Gibson



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