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Monthly Classic - Lester Young and the Oscar Peterson Trio

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Lester Young OVERVIEW:

Welcome to the initial edition of “Monthly Classic!" It's a pretty straight-forward concept; since the majority of reviews on JazzJunkie focus on contemporary artists, this monthly installment will look at some well deserving albums from the yesteryear. The reviews will be closer to the standard review format (i.e. pithy with no detailed track analysis). Easy enough? Let's go

What better recording to start with then the album responsible for my turntable losing its virginity? Yes, if you're as crazy as I am, you take conviction in selecting the “first...."the first movie to watch on a new home theater, the first CD to play in your new car, or in this case—the first record to play on a new turntable. The choice in this case was made a bit easier due to the unfortunate fact that very few contemporary jazz recordings are released on vinyl. But to be honest, this album may have still won out against some of my favorites from today. Lester Young grabbed a piece of my heart years ago and has yet to relinquish it. I remember first hearing him, ironically enough, on a song from this recording on the soundtrack to the movie American Splendor (a great film about the life of jazz critic and comic book writer Harvey Pekar). I still didn't really know who Lester was until a few years later while taking a jazz history and appreciation class in college. I remember standing outside on my deck one night with my headphones on listening to “Taxi War Dance" and “Lester Leaps In" over and over again.

You see, up until this point in jazz Coleman Hawkins had been the man when it came to saxophone. Hawkins thrived on fast paced solos where every note in a chord was played and there was little, if any, space from note to note. He had a rough, deep, grizzled sound. Then along came Lester Young and changed the tenor saxophone forever; his phrases were rhythmic and lyrical—built on spacing, tempo, and skipping notes in chord progressions. While Hawkins was hard driven, fast, and dirty, Lester was easy, well-paced, and light. Listening to “Taxi War Dance" and “Lester Leaps In" is even more amazing when you consider both were recorded in 1939. His sound on those two recordings is easily recognizable as the precursor to “cool jazz" (also known as “west coast jazz")—a style that would grab listeners attentions in the 1950s (both Miles Davis and Stan Getz, amongst a multitude of other musicians, credit Young as a major influence). Lester changed jazz forever and even today the saying goes, “hardly a tenor saxophonist can play an entire chorus without playing some Lester Young."

But alas, this isn't an article about Lester Young—it's about the 1952 album The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio. The two jazz giants, Young and Peterson, are joined by another future legend on bass, Ray Brown. Brown, only 26 years old at the time of this recording, had joined the Oscar Peterson Trio just a year earlier. Filling out the lineup is guitarist Barney Kessel and drummer J.C. Heard on drums. After all those years of listening to this album, it wasn't until now that I realized the Oscar Peterson Trio was actually a quartet! Oh the fun doesn't stop there—getting concrete information on this album has been a task. On one site, the recording and release dates were both listed as August 4th, 1952; another claimed the album was recorded in November 1952; and finally, a third listed the recording date as November 1958. Confused yet? The consensus points to a recording date of August 4th, 1952 with the release being issued before the end of the year.

Semantics aside, this album epitomizes early 1950s swing—straightahead jazz, before there was a term coined straight-ahead. This album is approachable by all and many non-jazz fans will undoubtedly associate this style with jazz; a pure swing feeling. Although Heard and Brown hold down the pace throughout, the tunes are really carried forward by Young, Peterson, and to a lesser extent, Kessel. The format for the album could really be divided into two parts with each of the first four songs having the same solo structure—saxophone, piano, guitar—and then back to Lester to close things out. In the introduction to the opening track, “Ad Lib Blues," Lester displays the lyrical phrasing which will be the theme of this recording. His vibrato is slow and silky and he employs expert control of dynamics and glissando (bending a note through voicing) throughout. Bending the pitches with smears and scoops on “Just You, Just Me," Young conveys a sense of blues even during this up-tempo number.

While Young creates a bluesy, lyrical quality through perfectly paced solos, Oscar Peterson maintains the theme by letting his hands go to work. Peterson fills every available space during his solos, but still maintains the lyrical quality handed off by Young. His solo on “Just You, Just Me" is a masterpiece (one in which he outshines Young)—so many beautiful little runs, one stacked up after another, a technique he uses again on “Tea for Two." Kessel's guitar solos are pleasant—nothing more, nothing less, with the exception being “Tea for Two" where he is at his best—but he is almost completely missing as an accompanist (overshadowed by Peterson's piano playing).

The second half of this recording points the spotlight squarely on Lester Young. Peterson joins the rhythm section for most of the tracks and is completely missing from “I Can't Get Started"—and while the bass and drums are present, this is really a duet between Young and Kessel. Although these last four tracks are a bit slower, they highlight Young's expressive use of vibrato. He's most romantic on the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street," where his sax sounds velvety and rich. If you have a turntable, pick yourself a copy on vinyl—the warmth and soul expressed by Young comes through in a way that digital media just can't capture.

RECOMMENDATION:

4 out of 5 Although I'd like to give this a 5, it's not as complete as a “perfect" album (realizing of course, there is no perfect album). That's no knock though—this album has repeat listening smacked all over it. Most riveting about The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio is its ability to move you—both physically and mentally. The first half will keep your toes tapping while the second will have your head swaying to Lester's cool, expressive language. Mentally, all you need to do is close your eyes and you'll find yourself sitting at a dimly lit table in a small, smoky club. This is truly one of those albums that can take your cares away. Get it and hear what “cool" is really all about!

Lester Young—tenor saxophone
Oscar Peterson—piano
Ray Brown—bass
J.C. Heard—drums
Barney Kessel—guitar

Original release date: 1952 (Verve)


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