Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Lester Young/Count Basie Sessions 1936-1940 (Mosaic, 2008)

Tenor saxophonist Lester Young had bounced around the Midwest in a variety of groups after leaving the family band his father led. Catching up with the burgeoning Kansas City scene in the mid 1930's he fell in with the group of swing and blues musicians who were gathering around pianist and bandleader Count Basie. Young's unique light tone on the tenor was unusual for the time when saxophonists were in thrall to the heavier Coleman Hawkins sound. But Young doggedly persevered and slowly began to gain acceptance, helped by winning an epic after-hours cutting contest with Hawkins (recounted in detail in the liner notes.) Young became the featured soloist in the Basie orchestra, and that band eventually caught the ear of record producer John Hammond who brought them to New York to record for Columbia Records. This boxed set collects the music Basie recorded for Columbia and associated labels in the immediate pre-war era, with Young at the center of it all. The band also included other luminaries like the singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes , and instrumentalists Buck Clayton, Freddie Green and Harry "Sweets" Edison. The music is extraordinary throughout, the band could seemingly take any riff or idea and make it into a mini masterpiece. Mostly based on the blues and honed by one nighters all across the Midwest, the band had a more rough edged sound than did the suave and boundary stretching Ellington ensemble, but what the may have lacked in sophistication, they more than made up in drive and charisma. Rushing stands out as a front man singing the dark and ominous "Evenin'" and the deep blues of "I Left My Baby" and "Goin' to Chicago" but the real star of the show is Lester Young, whose extraordinary solos on the genre defining tracks like "Taxi War Dance" and "Lester Leaps In" would influence generations of saxophonists. This isn't the entire story of course, Basie was also signed to the Decca label at the time and cut many of the same pieces for them in versions that equaled or even surpassed these. But the importance of this set lies in bringing together music that had been split over several LP's of varying quality. Mosaic remasters the music to the highest quality possible for music of this vintage, and includes lengthy very well written liner essays and extraordinary photographs. This is historic music in a very classy package, and it is highly recommended.

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