Mosaic Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions
Yesterday I received the new Mosaic set of recordings featuring Count Basie and Lester Young. Whenever I receive any set of Mosaic recordings, my anticipation is very high. I eagerly leaf through the 12-inch by 12-inch booklet first, looking at the photos. In this set, there are many images from the Basie band’s legendary 1938 stand at the Famous Door in Manhattan. These give us an opportunity to see up-close most of the musicians who were members of Basie’s band then, as it was becoming known to a wide American public for the first time.
I also can’t wait to listen to the music to hear what sound quality has been achieved in the digital remastering/audio restoration process. After listening to about 1/3 of these classic recordings, I can say that the sound quality so far is very good.
The discographical information on most Mosaic sets is excellent, and that appears to be the case here.
Finally, the notes on the music, in this case by tenor saxophonist/pianist/jazz musician/historian Loren Schoenberg, also seem to be excellent, reflecting his great ability to hear what is going on in the music, and describe it for discerning listeners.
More about this Mosaic set after I have had the opportunity to carefully listen to all of the recordings and read everything in the booklet.
I have been listening to the music in this latest wonderful Mosiac set, and carefully reading the liner notes over the last couple of weeks. Although my impressions of the music have been established by listening to Lester Young’s playing for many decades, I must say that the liner notes of Loren Schoenberg for these recordings have brought to me a deeper, richer understanding of Young’s music. Here are but a few of his insightful observations:
Page 1: “Lester Young’s first recordings took place when he was 27 years old. …What for us is the very beginning of Young’s ouevre is at the same time several steps into his own mature evolution.” Young had been a professional musician for 13 years before these recordings were made.This explains why Young’s playing at the first recording session on November 9, 1936, sounds so completely new, when compared with what was going on in jazz generally in late 1936.
In addition to newness of Lester’s overall approach to the tenor saxophone on these first recordings, one is struck by the strong individuality of his sound, his astonishingly fluid instrumental technique, and his utterly floating rhythmic approach. Later in his notes, Schoenberg observes that the Lester of 1950 and later was (for myriad reasons) a very different Lester from who he was before 1950. I would suggest that the there were three Lesters: The one whose quicksilver solos lifted the recordings he made before World War II; a second Lester whose sound had thickened throughout the 1940s, whose technique was sometimes less stunning; and the last Lester of the 1950s, whose playing often sounded tired (I mean emotionally tired). Still, Young was at all times during his recording career capable of creating inspiring music of strong individuality.
As a pianist, Loren Schoenberg has great insight into what jazz piano is all about. As a historian, he knows who was doing what, and when they were doing it. And he has the chops as a writer to put all of this together to give the reader fresh and valuable insights. On page 6, Schoenberg observes, when discussing the June 1, 1937 Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday recording session on which Lester Young played: “In early 1937, Teddy Wilson was rapidly becoming the most influential pianist of his generation. (His style) was smooth and svelte, and while highly virtuosic,didn’t call attention to itself in quite the way that earlier styles had. Wilson’s way with chord changes was also something new, and ahead of its time. It’s a lesser-known fact that that Wilson and Art Tatum spent part of 1931 together in Toledo, Ohio, and they influenced each other profoundly. …Streams of influence at this stage of jazz’s evolution are many and remain largely unquantified to this day.” The pianistic cross-pollination between Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson is on display in Tatum’s recordings from the early 1930s. If one the listens to Wilson’s recordings from the mid-1930s well into the 1940s, there is a strong sense of Tatum hovering overhead. And then if one listens to the piano playing of Nat “King” Cole from the late 1930s through the 1940s, and similarly the playing of Mel Powell during these same years, one comes to appreciate a part of the communal development of jazz piano from 1930 into the early 1940s, and the fact that Teddy Wilson’s playing provided a strong current in that development.
This leads to the musical relationship between Lester Young and the various pianists who accompanied him. It is apparent to me that Young’s playing thrived whenever he was working with a strong accompanist. That there was special magic between Young and Count Basie is demonstrated in almost every recording they made together. Other pianists whose playing clearly inspired Lester were Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarnieri, and especially Nat Cole.The Lester Young Trio sessions with Cole (July 15, 1942 and March/April 1946), showcase Young at the peak of his creativity, and remind us what a great jazz pianist Cole was before he became a pop singing sensation.
Schoenberg explains the pivotal role of pioneering arranger Eddie Durham in consolidating the many creative forces that made up the Count Basie band in its Decca years (1937-1939). The explosive swing of the Basie band in those years caused a major re-evaluation of what it meant to swing among all bands that cared about swinging.
He also makes reference to Lester’s early experience as a sideman with King Oliver when he analyzes Young’s ability to “create a polyphonic web” with other instruments that at once looked back to Oliver’s style of jazz, yet looked forward beyond the conventions of the swing era.
Finally, don’t overlook the “Kansas City Six” recordings made on September 27, 1938, where Young plays clarinet. To say that Lester Young brought every bit of his individuality as a tenor saxophonist to his clarinet playing would be an understatement. I hear in Lester’s clarinet a strongly haunting quality that gradually emerged in his tenor playing, becoming pronounced in his later recordings made in the 1950s.
The sound quality of the recordings on this set is overall very good. Inexplicably however, the source recording used for the Basie/Lester classic Decca side “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (August 22, 1938) is grainy. Here is a pristine version of that recording. It showcases Lester at his best. The solos are by Basie on piano; Earle Warren on alto sax; Buck Clayton on cup muted trumpet; Lester Young on tenor sax; and Herschel Evans on clarinet.