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Alto-Sax All-Time Great; His 48 finest 1934-56

RETROSPECTIVE RTS 4368 [77:25 + 79:56]



1. Rhythm is our business - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

2. Sophisticated lady - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

3. Rose room - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

4. Sleepy time gal - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

5. Avalon - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

6. Ain't she sweet? - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

7. Uptown blues - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

8. Blue blazes - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

9. What's your story, morning glory? - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

10. Blues in the night - Lunceford, Jimmie & His Orchestra

11. I'm confessin' - James, Harry & His Sextet

12. How high the moon - Jazz At The Philharmonic

13. September in the rain - Smith, Willie & His Orchestra

14. You oughta be in pictures - Smith, Willie & His Orchestra

15. Willie, weep for me - Smith, Willie & His Orchestra

16. Moten swing - Smith, Willie & His Orchestra

17. It's been a long, long time - James, Harry & His Orchestra / Kallen, Kitty

18. I never knew - Smith, Willie & His Six/Sextet

19. All the things you are - Smith, Willie & His Six/Sextet

20. I've found a new baby - Smith, Willie & His Six/Sextet

21. Skylark - Smith, Willie & His Six/Sextet

22. Windjammer - Smith, Willie & His Six/Sextet

23. Who's sorry now? - James, Harry & His Orchestra

24. The way you look tonight - Keynoters, The


1. I can't believe that you're in love with me - Keynoters, The

2. My old flame - Keynoters, The

3. Airiness a la Nat - Keynoters, The

4. I got it bad and that ain't good - Anderson, Ivie & Her All Stars

5. Zanzibar - Tizol, Juan & His Orchestra

6. Keb-Lah - James, Harry & His Orchestra/Octet

7. East coast blues - James, Harry & His Orchestra/Octet

8. Cotton tail - James, Harry & His Orchestra/Octet

9. Stardust - Hampton, Lionel & His Just Jazz All Stars

10. Tuxedo junction - James, Harry & His Octet

11. Not so bop blues - Smith, Willie & His Quintet

12. Tea for two - Smith, Willie & His Quintet

13. Sophisticated lady - Smith, Willie & His Quintet

14. New two o'clock jump - James, Harry & His Orchestra

15. Deep purple - James, Harry & His Orchestra

16. Please be kind - Ellington, Duke & His Orchestra

17. Caravan - Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn All Stars

18. Indian summer - Coronets, The

19. Coronation hop - Krupa, Gene & His Sextet

20. Paradise - Krupa, Gene & His Sextet

21. Cool blues - Jazz At The Philharmonic

22. The young man with a horn - Jazz At The Philharmonic

23. Perdido - James, Harry & His Orchestra

24. I was a little too lonely - Cole, Nat King & His Quintet

Willie Smith (1910-67) is primarily associated with the premiere league bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Harry James but his punchy, rhythmic and vividly swinging playing fitted Jazz at the Philharmonic’s ethos just as well; the eternal sideman was also a soloist who could easily hold his own alongside the talents of Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers and Ben Webster. Which makes it all the stranger that, according to sleeve-note writer Digby Fairweather, there has only been one other release devoted solely to his recordings.

Early on he was not simply playing alto – and clarinet – but arranging. By the time he was 24 he was turning out arrangements for Lunceford’s band; his fine arrangement of Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady in 1934 is a perfect case in point. The band’s sax voicings must have deferred to him, as the virtuoso cubist judderings of the section in Sleepy Time Gal show. Benny Carter, a rival alto player, probably listened closely to Smith’s work and repurposed Smith’s athleticism for his own suaver legato purposes. It’s clear that Smith pushed at the beat far more than Carter and Hodges, an approach that was nearer jump players than the operatic Hodges or the coloratura Carter. He shows in Ain’t She Sweet though how richly lyrical he could be with that trademark teasing upward portamento very much audible and on Uptown Blues shows he can shake on down with the best of them. He plays blues on the clarinet on What’s Your Story, Morning Glory? when the Lunceford band made a rare studio foray to the West Coast.

Outside the big bands he ran his own small groups – quintets, sextets, septets under various names. They were invariably tight bands with solid ensemble virtues Keynote recorded his band with, amongst others, Billy May on trumpet, Arnold Ross (fine player) at the piano school and guitarist Les Paul. There’s a fine Moten Swing and a wittily titled Willie, Weep for Me written inevitably by the leader. Boxily recorded though this session is, it is a fine one. But the sextet a few months later with Howard McGhee and Lucky Thompson alongside brings out the battler in Smith. I’ve Found a New Baby features Smith driving through the music like the great player he was. By contrast, performing with the Keynoters in 1946 the mood in The Way You Look Tonight is sinuously romantic – no surprise there, as the pianist here, ‘Lord Calvert’, is really Nat King Cole.

Smith and Harry James were long-time friends and there are numerous examples of their work together. The June 1947 aggregation was a kicking band, as was the sassy recording of New Two O’Clock Jump in 1950, but Smith is just as strong on the small-group sessions, really swinging through Tuxedo Junction for example. There’s one big band Ellington side (Please Be Kind) and a small group ‘All Star’ track on Caravan where Smith is reunited with Juan Tizol. The final music is a track from a Nat Cole small band session in 1956. The JATP examples included are brief extracts and feature just Smith’s searing solos.

Smith was a virtuoso soloist with a readily identifiable tone and an athletic improviser. He could play ballads and blues and he could rip roar with the best of his JATP stablemates. An all-round big and small band player he has never been forgotten but seldom has his music been as well explored as in this twofer.

Jonathan Woolf

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