June 1, 2008


When Basie Was Young at Heart (WILL FRIEDWALD, June 2, 2008, NY Sun)

Dancing was a crucial concept in the music of William "Count" Basie. If his colleague, Duke Ellington, was American music's master painter, using the 15-piece big band as a canvas to express an infinite variety of tonal colors, hues and shadings, then Basie was jazz's greatest dance master, a musical choreographer. And the saxophonist Lester Young was his greatest vehicle. This becomes especially clear in a new four-CD set from Mosaic Records (www.mosaicrecords.com) that gathers most of the principal works of the Basie-Young collaboration. [...]

On the surface, the deepest element of Basie's music seems to have been the extremely rhythmic variations on the blues and the colorful takes on popular songs of his era. Yet even if timing is everything, it isn't the only thing. The art of choreography doesn't only exist in time, it exists in physical space; likewise, Young and Basie can be said to have played in three dimensions. In the same way that Einstein proved that light has weight, when Young crafted a solo, he alighted from the ensemble in a way that imbued his music with a physical solidity. Each note existed in perspective, every emotion examined from many different angles, and the improvised melody itself had a concrete physical shape.

The Mosiac box includes four sessions by Young with small groups, and apart from the first of these (the legendary Smith-Jones date from 1936, when Basie, Young, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Carl Smith recorded as Smith-Jones Incorporated for Vocalion), the package is all big-band material from 1939 and 1940. Young's small-group performances, most famously the dozen or so sessions he shared with musical soul mate Billie Holiday, were amazingly democratic: All of the players get equal solo space, and even the star singer is confined to a single chorus.

Not so on the Basie sessions: The bulk of these are solo features that spotlight him more like a king than as an elected official or public servant. There are other solo stars here, notably the trombonist Dicky Wells, trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Buck Clayton, as well as two excellent band singers in Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes. Still, the material is skewed toward Young. The four discs here do not contain the band's complete output of the period, just those numbers on which Young solos.

Young's own most famous composition was "Lester Leaps In," an "I Got Rhythm" variation heard here in its original 1939 recording. But he does much more than leap in and out. On "Taxi War Dance," "Tickle Toe," "Riff Interlude," and others, Young suddenly materializes in front of the band and then disappears in a puff of smoke like a magician; among many other things, the man certainly knew how to make an entrance.

And he did more than dance in front of the chorus; as heard on the Mosaic discs, he interacts with the rhythm section, as well as the brass and reed sections, in back-and-forth exchanges that had artistic precedents in world culture, from the Platonic dialogues to Gilbert and Sullivan. Young not only launches "Taxi" (which, as Loren Schoenberg points out in his excellent notes, is based on "Willow Weep for Me") with a full-tilt solo at the start, but he returns at the coda for a round-robin exchange in which he sounds like a kung-fu master ducking body blows.

Even at their most jubilant, Young's solos contain the bittersweet emotional nuances that were already his trademark in the late 1930s.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2008 9:09 PM
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