Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wardell Gray - Blue Lou (Proper, 2003)

Wardell Gray was a journeyman swing-to-bop tenor saxophone player who was active in the 1940's and 50's. Blue Lou is the first disc in a multi-disc set released by the British budget label Proper gathering Gray's most famous sides both as a leader and a sideman. Starting off with Gray's tenure with the Earl Hines Orchestra in 1945, he gets some space for distinctive but unhurried solos augmented by big band riffing on "Straight Life" and "Let's Get Started." The sound quality is pretty bleak for these early records, but Gray's tenor shines through the fog. "Dell's Bells" from a small band session a year later sounds much better and his tenor saxophone sounds great, controlling but not constricting the pace of his solo.

"One For Prez" keeps up the easy-going swing in a tribute to one of his primary influences, Lester Young. But it's interesting to hear on the ballad "The Man I Love" that Gray was definitely his own man with his own sound and his tone is sharper and tarter than Young's at that tempo. Bop rears its head on the title track, and this comes to a climax on the epic 16 minute track "Backbreaker" which riffs a "Night in Tunisia" like melody hard, JATP style, before giving way to a storming round robin set of pure bebop solos from a famous concert at the Los Angeles Elks Club in 1947 that featured many other west coast luminaries like Sonny Criss and Howard McGhee. The disc finishes up with Gray holding down the tenor chair in McGhee's band, playing fast paced bebop on Dizzy Gillespie standards "Groovin' High," "Hothouse" and "Bebop."

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