Correspondence: The Spirit of Ben Webster


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Rifftides reader Nina Ramos listened to Carol Sloane's newest recording, encountered something that disturbed her, and sent this message:


Just finished reading your liner notes and listening to Carol Sloane's Dearest Duke. I liked it very much - except - (and am I the only one to notice?) the extremely loud breathiness in the sax part of two pieces especially - “In My Solitude" and “I Got It Bad". It just about ruins both of those songs for me. Did I get a defective recording, or is that how it's “supposed" to sound?

Is he too close to the mike on these pieces? You didn't mention this in your liner notes so I wondered if your copy had the same loud breaths on it. Both of these sax solos start about 2 minutes into each song. As you can probably tell, I know very little about jazz, other than I like something or I don't. I loved her voice - but that sax.... Thank you for any information you care to give.

Dear Ms. Ramos,

Ken Peplowski (l), who got your attention in his collaboration with Carol Sloane, is paying homage to Ben Webster (r) (1909-1973), the great Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist. Webster's use of breathy vibrato on ballads was a trademark and, to many listeners, one of his most endearing qualities. Whether Peplowski was miked too closely is a matter of preference, I suppose, but there is no doubt that he was emulating Webster.  

The great Ellington band of 1940 and 1941 is generally identified in Ellingtonia as the Blanton-Webster band after two of its stars, bassist Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster. This box set contains lots of classic Webster with Ellington in that period. This encounter with Gerry Mulligan has superb latterday Webster.

There is more information in the chapter on Webster in my book Jazz Matters: Reflections On The Music And Some Of Its Makers. Here's a paragraph.

In the beginning his playing was modeled closely on the dramatic, sweeping, even grandiose, style of Coleman Hawkins. But over time, Webster pared away embellishments and rococo elements while maintaining warmth and a big tone, and created a style that appeals with force and clarity directly to the emotions.
If you seek out Webster's recordings, perhaps you, too, will submit to his charms. To see and hear him play “Old Folks" with Teddy Wilson on piano, click here. Yes, that's a tear rolling down Ben's cheek when Wilson finishes his solo. He felt things deeply.

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