This collection celebrates the mature Lester Young of the 1950s, a reminder of a time when he would blow into town for a week performing with a local rhythm section, or for a one-night appearance as part of an all-star, Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. A time when his powers of eloquence and subtlety remained undiminished, while his tone had developed a more mature-one could say darker-edge.
Tracks 1 through 7 are culled from recordings made in December 1956 during Young's week-long run at Olivia Davis's Patio Lounge in Washington DC. The house band was the Bill Potts Trio-pianist Potts, bassist Norman Williams, and drummer Jim Lucht-who were all in their mid-twenties and thrilled to be accompanying the 47-year old master in residence. "Our six-night labor of love," Potts called it.
Young arrived with a repertoire that was pretty much set in place-rhythm numbers, slower ballads, and a few original blues. There were also a few newer melodies he had discovered "by listening to records by Sinatra and other good popular singers, which he preferred to current jazz," according to historian Dan Morgenstern.
"Jumpin' with Symphony Sid," one of Young's best-known compositions, abounds with good humor and his own funky feel for the blues. The oldie "Tea for Two" is taken at a brisk clip; Young's five choruses ring with playful invention. Note the four-note sequence he toys with (a kind of "sheets of sound" moment) and returns to later (1:43 and 2:12). About Young's ability to ably handle faster tempos, Morgenstern writes:
"One of the fascinations of late Lester is the degree to which he was able to lay back on the stream of jazz time, like a great swimmer knows how to let the current carry him, but not to where he doesn't want to be. Rhythm was his springboard, swinging his element..."
"I Can't Get Started" takes its time, and Young's solo is an excellent example of his priority for the pretty. The same can be said of "Pennies from Heaven"-a tune so overplayed even by 1956 standards, yet lovingly treated by Young's lyrical mastery. Listen to his happy exhortations during the sidemen solos, and his thank you in response to the "little claps"-what Young called applause. Also, catch what was the boisterous level of crowd noise-standard for the day, so unlike the church-like atmosphere of jazz clubs today.
"I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" swings lightly and politely (to borrow from Satchmo), Young displaying his signature feel for the lower register of the horn. "Oh Lady, Be Good"-a tune Young had helped make a standard while with Basie-pushes up the tempo a couple of notches, as local trombonist Earl Swope sits in. "Just You, Just Me" (which Young liked to call "Just Us") reveals the authority with which Young could balance a delayed sense of time with a bright and buoyant feel for melody.
Young's 1956 performances are typical of his sound in a more intimate setting, while the final three tracks of this collection, pulled from Jazz at the Philharmonic tours of the early ‘50s, show off Young's more consciously public side. Produced by Norman Granz with a penchant for teaming up older swing-era veterans with more modern jazz and/or R&B-inspired players, the JATP traveling jam sessions proved on a nightly basis that jazz was essentially jazz, and that all great improvisers spoke the same language.
"Undecided," the chestnut made famous by Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, was recorded in 1952 in Germany. In the pressure-cooker company of high-powered soloists like trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Hank Jones and fellow tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips-as well as bassist Ray Brown and bebop master Max Roach-Young proves the lessons learned from years playing in horn sections. When called upon to wail and excite, wail he could and excite he did.
A year later in Hartford, Connecticut, Young blew alongside pianist Oscar Peterson's quartet of the day, which featured guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer J. C. Heard. For "I Cover the Waterfront," obviously Young's showcase for the evening, he reaches for, and expertly tugs the emotional strings of the well-known tune. Fittingly, the evening's set and this collection close with Young's now ubiquitous flag-waver "Lester Leaps In"-eliciting whistles, cheers, and more little claps.
Today, Young's sound continues to cast its influence wide and far: it is one of the most recognizable of the jazz tradition, one part of the primer every creative musician should hear and must acknowledge. On the centenary of his birth, Young is deserving of top praise not only for the enduring template he created, but for maintaining a singular voice when others would have him be someone he was not.
Lester Young was, as Nat Hentoff has insightfully written, "a paradigm of live and let live, a loner who wondered why everybody didn't just cultivate his garden, growing whatever he wanted there, instead of honking and stomping in other folks' space."
He played as he lived, and the loneliness in his music was real. When Young died on March 15, 1959, he was just 49, living by himself in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan. "It's the same all over," he said in his last interview days before his death, "You fight for your life until death do you part, and then you got it made."
Ashley Kahn is the author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, and other jazz titles. He often contributes to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."