August 28, 2009


Forever Young—A Centennial Tribute (WILL FRIEDWALD, 8/19/09, WSJ)

His 1943 solo on "Sometimes I'm Happy," made shortly after Young's return to the Count Basie Orchestra, is a prime ­example of the President (usually shortened to "Prez")—as Billie Holiday called Young—touching on every emotion known to man in a single, short solo. He's obviously ­inspired by Irving Caesar's title and lyric as much as he is by Vincent Youmans' melody. Most popular songs present the states of "happy" and "sad" as monolithic poles of feeling, but Young seems to be jazzed by the way that Caesar and Youmans mix both together. His ­interpretation of the tune is both at the same time, a constant state of melancholic ­euphoria. [...]

Young's later period has been the subject of much controversy among jazz scholars; it's often alleged that he was in decline in the 1950s, partly as a result of a nightmarish year he spent, mostly in the detention barracks, in the segregated armed forces during World War II, which certainly exacerbated the chronic alcoholism that contributed to his death at age 49. Yet even without these extramusical circumstances, it seems reasonable that Young's sound would have grown darker and deeper as he got older (as did Sinatra's), and to many of us Young in his 40s is even more melancholy and moving than his earlier self.

The "Centennial" collection includes seven tracks from 1956 of the President, appropriately, in Washington, D.C., at a local club at his relaxed and clear-headed best, and three longer tracks of him jamming more ­aggressively with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe ­(including Roy Eldridge and Flip Phillips) and in front of Oscar Peterson's Quartet.

When he plays "I Cover the Waterfront" on the "Centennial" package (from 1953), he isn't just playing a pretty melody or a generic love song. He makes you feel as if he's covered every inch of that waterfront, searching for that person whom the lyrics ­refer to as "the one I love." Not only has he looked on every pier and wharf, but he's been in and out of every waterfront watering hole and saloon, fortifying himself along the way. No less than Sinatra doing "Angel Eyes" or Holiday doing "Don't Explain," it's a profoundly dark, almost ­existential experience. You have a hard time believing anyone could ­reveal so much of his soul through a tenor sax and a ­microphone.

And yet, most of the time, even in his final years, Young is an irresistible and relentless swinger—Fred Astaire only wished he could be this light on his feet—as on the saxophonist's two original riff anthems, "Lester Leaps In" and "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid." There's no escaping the conclusion that listening to Lester Young makes you happy. Sometimes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2009 6:23 AM
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