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



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BEN WEBSTER

Dig Ben!

Storyville 108 8601

 

 



CD1

1. Johnny Come Lately
2. Perdido
3. Autumn Leaves
4. Old Folks
5. Mack the Knife
6. Sunday
7. Come Sunday
8. Our Love Is Here to Stay
9. The Theme
CD2

1. On Green Dolphin Street
2. Bye, Bye Blackbird
3. Love Come Back to Me
4. Wee Dot
5. Tenderly
6. Sometimes I'm Happy
7. Embraceable You
8. The Theme
9. Sophisticated Lady
10. Stridin' with Ben
11. All the Things You Are
12. I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me
13. I Got It Bad
14. Our Blues
CD3

1. Danny Boy
2. Intro Ronnie Scott
3. Blues in B Flat
4. Star Dust
5. Gone with the Wind
6. The Theme
7. Confirmation
8. Poutin'
9. A Night in Tunisia
10. Over the Rainbow
11. How High the Moon
12. Willow Weep for Me
13. Perdido
CD4

1. Pennies from Heaven
2. Blues in B Flat
3. In a Mellotone
4. Sunday
5. Cotton Tail
6. Gone with the Wind
7. Cotton Tail
8. My Romance
9. Cotton Tail
10. In a Mellotone
11. How Long Has This Been Going On?
CD5

1. The "C" Jam Blues
2. My Romance
3. Our Love Is Here to Stay
4. Avalon
5. Chelsea Bridge
6. Danny Boy
7. How High the Moon
8. How Long Has This Been Going On?
9. B-Flat Blues
10. Medley: How Long Has Thing Been Going On?/Sophisticated Lady
11. In a Mellotone
12. For Heavens Sake
CD6

1. The "C" Jam Blues
2. Don't Get Around Much Anymore
3. The Theme.
4. Old Folks
5. Satin Doll
6. Things Ain't What They Used to Be
7. I Got Rhythm
8. Satin Doll
9. Indiana
CD7

1. Things Ain't What They Used to Be
2. Cotton Tail
3. Greensleeves
4. Rockin' in Rhythm
5. Stompy Jones
6. Cry Me a River
7. Bojangles
8. Perdido
9. Our Love Is Here to Stay
10. Ain't Misbehavin'
11. Mop Mop
12. Our Love Is Here to Stay
13. Perdido
CD8

1. Did You Call Her Today (Take 1)
2. Did You Call Her Today (Take 2)
3. Did You Call Her Today (Take 3)
4. Did You Call Her Today (Take 4)
5. Did You Call Her Today (Take 5)
6. Did You Call Her Today (Take 6)
7. Did You Call Her Today (Take 7)
8. Did You Call Her Today (Take 8)
9. Baby It's Cold Outside (Takes 1, 2, 3)
10. Baby It's Cold Outside (Take 4)
11. Baby It's Cold Outside (Take 5)
12. Cotton Tail
13. Old Folks (Take 1)
14. Old Folks (Take 2)
15. Old Folks (Take 3)
16. Old Folks (Take 4)
17. Old Folks (Take 5)
18. Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone
19. The Song Is Ended
20. Poutin’ (Take 1, 2)
21. Poutin’ (Take 3)
22. Poutin' (Takes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
23. Randle's Island (Take 10)
24. Randle's Island (Take 11)
25. Randle's Island (Take 12)

When I first started exploring my father’s record collection, one of my favourite discoveries was Duke Ellington’s Cotton Tail. I loved it because of its driving rhythm (thanks especially to bassist Jimmy Blanton and drummer Sonny Greer) and its exciting tenor-sax solo by Ben Webster. Cotton Tail established Webster, the first tenor-saxist to be employed regularly by Ellington, as an important voice in jazz. He was so important to the Ellington orchestra of the early forties that the group is often referred to as "The Blanton-Webster Band".

Cotton Tail exhibited one side of Webster’s personality, but there was another side. People who knew him said that Ben was a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde personality: capable of friendly warmth but also fierce temper. And his playing might be described similarly. There was the dynamic, growling tenorist of Cotton Tail and Main Stem but there was also the more gentle, sensuous soloist of Blue Serge with Ellington and the wonderfully soulful later recordings with Art Tatum. Webster's sound often consisted purely of his fluttering breaths into the sax with plenty of vibrato.

Both sides of Ben Webster are illustrated on this phenomenal boxed set of eight CDs. It is a treasure trove of good music, mostly recorded in Scandinavia in the 1960s and early 1970s, although there are also some tracks laid down in Britain and the USA. Ben lived in Denmark for about the last ten years of his life (he died in 1973) and he obviously felt at ease backed by local musicians such as pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, who are his accompanists on many of these recordings.

With more than one hundred tracks in the collection, some tunes naturally appear several times. The final CD even contains eight takes of Did You Call Her Today, with Ben showing both sides of his personality: playing rhapsodically but also shouting at the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra (albeit good-humouredly) to describe how he wants the tune to sound. This CD ends with six tracks from a reel-to-reel tape in Webster’s collection, providing nine takes of Poutin’ and three of Randle’s Island, with a rhythm section of Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinnegar and Mel Lewis. There is also a lacklustre performance of Cotton Tail, suggesting that Ben may have played it once too often.

In such a rich and varied collection, I can only pick out some particularly notable items. The second CD includes a duo session with Milt Hinton's double bass and offers the rare chance to hear Ben Webster playing the piano in Stridin’ With Ben - rather raggedly, I'm afraid. The fifth CD includes quintet sessions with Buck Clayton (tracks 1-9) and Dexter Gordon (tracks 10 and 11). The sixth CD contains a couple of tracks with trumpeter Clark Terry (Satin Doll and Things Ain’t What They Used To Be) where the two Ellingtonians blend well in Ellingtonian compositions. And the seventh CD includes the rare opportunity to hear Webster backed by a string orchestra in Greensleeves. The sound quality on this track is fine, as it was recorded in the Danish radio Studio but, since most of the tunes were recorded live at clubs, the recording quality varies a great deal. For example, the 2nd and 3rd tracks on the first CD are decidedly fuzzy, and the 1964 tracks on CD3 with Stan Tracey's trio (recorded at Ronnie Scott's London club) are not exactly hi-fi. Even worse are the four tracks on CD7 recorded in 1966 at a Danish club with Steen Vig's Jazz Orchestra, although it is good to hear Ben swinging on Mop Mop, a composition by Coleman Hawkins, his main precursor on tenor sax.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a fascinating collection for the Webster enthusiast – although others may feel sated by so many recordings. They are best sampled in short doses, not all at once. And the box contains a well-produced booklet with loads of information and great illustrations. This set shows Ben Webster as a consistently inventive soloist – and in the slower numbers, the most seductive-toned saxophonist ever.

Tony Augarde

 

 

 

 



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