Time Magazine may feel differently, but I can’t see anyone making a claim on 2016 as their year more than the President of the Tenor Saxophone, #LesterYoung. Pres is at the heart of a major new release of previously unheard performances by Count Basie’s Orchestra in the late thirties. JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE (Volume 2 of the The Savory Collection series), finds the Basie band at the absolute peak of their powers at the Famous Door on 52nd Street. We’d already had 80 years’ worth of studio recordings and airchecks proclaiming Basie’s the hardest swinging band of all time, but the new release from the The National Jazz Museum in Harlem sounds almost too good to be true, and Lester is all over it.
Earlier in the year, Mosaic Records released an eight-disc collection of Young’s work, Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie & Lester Young Studio Sessions. It includes the Decca sides that Pres appeared on with Basie, as well as the Kansas City Six, and a comprehensive grouping of Lester’s own dates through the mid-forties. If you’re a fan of Lester’s, you’ve probably already got some or all of this material from various sources, but the improved sound and chronological sequencing make the Mosaic release close to essential.
(Here’s some of the footage of Lester that Norman Granz produced on a soundstage in 1950. He’s seen with Bill Harris, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Buddy Rich playing “Ad Lib Blues” and “Pennies From Heaven.”)
Young’s innovative brilliance and influence were somewhat obscured by his status as an unbilled sideman with Basie, Billie Holiday, and Teddy Wilson. Indeed, his name was completely absent from any of the recordings he made between 1936 and ’43, and consumers have long had to look under other’s names to hear the heralded magic of Pres in his prime. But his name is in lights on the Savory and Mosaic sets, and that’s where it belongs.
(Listen for Lester humorously invoking his famous “titty-boom” directive to drummers in this footage from an Art Ford Jazz Party in 1958.)
Many of Lester’s solos are only eight and sixteen bars in length, but despite their brevity, there’s a complete and original quality to them that makes him the most compelling soloist in the three-minute idiom of the Swing Era. There’s a unique intimacy to Pres that keeps drawing me in, and these new collections allow us to hear him sounding fresh and new all over again. Both feature excellent liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, and the wonders of Pres and Basie in remastered sound.
(Lester is seen in sunglasses in this footage from the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival in 1938. The tune is “Every Tub,” but it’s out of sync and from a different venue. There are two thrilling takes of “Every Tub” on the Savory Collection release.)