December 17, 2007


Lionel Hampton's All-Star Band (WILL FRIEDWALD, December 17, 2007, NY Sun)

During the last 30 years, Hampton's Bluebird LP package has been one of the best reasons for keeping a turntable. Now I'm delighted that Mosaic Records has issued "The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937–1941" ( on CD.

The late-'30s are known as the Golden Years not just of the jazz big band, but also of the hotswing combo — bands that played primarily in ballrooms, theaters, and radio broadcasts. (The most famous small groups were most often special all-star units that only worked together on record dates.) Hampton's all-star combo series complemented the dates led at the same time by fellow Goodmanite Teddy Wilson and the star pianist-entertainer Fats Waller, though unlike their dates, Hampton's leaned less on pop tunes and more on jazz originals (and flat-out jam sessions with very few themes).

Hampton had already proven himself (with Louis Armstrong on "Memories of You" and in his first few years with Goodman) as jazz's first great master of the vibraphone. In establishing his presence as a bandleader, Hampton not only played the vibes and occasionally the drums, but commanded solo space, as on "Twelfth Street Rag," as a pianist playing in a vibraphone-esque two-note style that is like the musical equivalent of touch-typing.

Although it's entertaining to hear him do this shtick once or twice, Hampton's piano solos are perhaps the only parts of the 107 Victor tracks that become tiresome. He also sings on quite a few tracks, and I have to confess that his spooneristic mangling of lyrics and pronunciations never fails to amuse.

Even more than the leader's brilliant vibraphonics and amateurish singing, the reason we treasure these 21 sessions (on five discs) today is the amazingly high quality of the co-stars whom Hampton was able to attract. He gathered his colleagues in the Goodman band (these are, flat out, trumpeter Ziggy Elman's strongest claims to being a great jazz brassman), as well as great players then working with Duke Ellington (Johnny Hodges plays one of his signature solos on "On the Sunny Side of the Street") and Cab Calloway. Hampton also, from time to time, swallowed almost whole the entire personnel of several working small groups, notably Stuff Smith's Onyx Club band, the Spirits of Rhythm, and, most brilliantly, the King Cole Trio.

The most famous of these sessions is a 1939 date that featured four of the five greatest saxophonists playing at the time: alto Benny Carter and tenors Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Chu Berry (only Lester Young was absent), with young proto-boppers Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) and Charlie Christian (guitar) thrown in for good measure. The results are spectacular: Hawkins, Berry, and Carter have many marvelous moments in the series, with the latter also soloing wonderfully on trumpet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2007 9:09 AM

What I hate about Mosaic, is all the great boxed sets I missed before I discovered the company.

Posted by: Twn at December 17, 2007 11:37 AM

benny Carter was a key contibutor, as a composer and arranger to the 1939 session he writes about as well as a session from a few months earlier in late 1938. Carter had spent the previous 3 years in Europe (in the mid-30's Hawkins, Armstrong and many other jazz musicians found Europe to be an easier place for Blacks to live), and although it was a professionally rewarding chapter of his life, he missed playing with the top US jazz musicians..especially the best US rhythm players (piano, bass and drums). His first record sessions back in the States were these 2 with Hampton. The 1938 recording of Carter's "I'm in the Mood for Swing" and 1939's "When Lights Are Low" are 2 of the finest examples of swing music ever recorded.

Posted by: Foos at December 17, 2007 1:00 PM