Monday, November 9, 2009

Lester Young at Birdland

Originally posted on January 29, 2008

Tenor saxophonist Lester Young invented “cool.” Any self-respecting guitarist or bassist, musician or music fan. . . all should know his work, really. One of the first things I had to do when I studied with Barry Altschul years ago was to learn a Lester Young solo by heart and then sing along with it. I chose one of his later live solos from the fifties. What a revelation. He was such a melodist and what he played was his alone, although he influenced many jazz musicians both during his lifetime and after. His post-World War II period is sometimes discounted as not as great as what went before. I don’t really agree. Much of everything he played in later years was more concentrated, pithy and to the point. Allowing for a few mannerisms he picked up in response to JATP crowds—like playing one note with two alternating fingerings so it would sound alternatingly different—he is a more minimalist version of his former self. So what is wrong with that?

Lester was a fixture at the New York jazz club Birdland through most of the ‘50s. ESP Disk has issued a couple of radio broadcasts of his appearances there (Live at Birdland) and if you don’t know his work at all, it is one place to start. About half of the CD features a band that included a young Horace Silver on piano and it’s prime material. The recording quality is fair to good—they were radio transcriptions and sound the way most of them did. The playing, however, is what counts. Lester is in typically fine form throughout. The backup band in the last half of the disk is not always up to his level. But for Lester alone, it’s worth the price of admission.

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