YOUNG, Lester: Lester Leaps Again (1942-1944) (Kansas City Five/ Kansas City Seven/ Lester Young/ Lester Young Quartet/ Lester Young Quintet/ Lester Young Trio) (Naxos: 8.120764)
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'Lester Leaps Again' Original Recordings 1942-1944
Lester Young was a true individualist, in histenor-saxophone playing, his lifestyle and hisvocabulary. Among the words he reportedlyintroduced were bread (meaning money), cool(not pertaining to the temperature) and groovy.
When Young was developing his playing style,the dominant voice on tenor was ColemanHawkins. Hawkins had a large sound with ahard tone, and a style that was harmonicallyadvanced, full of notes and powerful. Nearlyevery other tenor-saxophonist sounded like aclose relative, except Young.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi on 27 August1909, Lester Young grew up playing music in hisfather's family band. He spent time playingtrumpet, alto, violin and drums before settlingon alto by 1920, around the time that his familyhad moved to Minnesota. In 1927 when he waseighteen he left the band because he did notwant to travel in the South. While with ArtBronson's Bostonians, Young switchedpermanently to the tenor-sax. After a few yearsof freelancing, he joined the Original Blue Devilsin 1932, settled in Kansas City and workedlocally with Bennie Moten, Clarence Love, KingOliver and Count Basie (1934). He was hired asthe first replacement for the recently departedColeman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson'sorchestra. Unlike Hawkins, Young had a lighterthan-air tone, he tended to float over bar linesand he played one or two notes where othersaxophonists might play ten. He was technicallyskilled and could read music easily, but hissound was considered so revolutionary that theother musicians felt that it did not fit in theHenderson big band; Young only lasted threemonths. He worked with Andy Kirk and EarlHines before rejoining Basie in 1936.
Lester Young's style was perfectly at homewith the Count Basie Orchestra, contrasting withthe more Hawkins-oriented sound of his fellowtenor Herschel Evans and inspiring Basie's lightbut hard-swinging rhythm section. Young was alarge part of Basie's success when the bandheaded East later in 1936, and he was its keysoloist for the next four years. Not only did hestar on classic records with Basie but he was aco-star on many of Billie Holiday's recordingswhere his cool-toned sound echoed hers. Hedubbed her \Lady Day" and she in turn calledhim "Pres," short for president.
In December 1940 Young left Basie's bandunder mysterious circumstances, possiblybecause he did not want to record on Friday the13th. Surprisingly Pres did not have a majorsolo career during the next few years, instead coleadinga mostly undocumented group with hisbrother drummer Lee Young and working in AlSears' big band. Among the few recording dateshe made during the period are four titles on15 July 1942 in a trio with the up-and-comingNat King Cole (who was better known at thetime as a pianist than as a singer) and bassistRed Callender. A special aspect of these fourexplorations of standards is that, because themusic was originally released on 12-inch ratherthan 10-inch 78s, the performances are longerthan the usual three-minute limit, with BodyAnd Soul exceeding five minutes. Young soundsrelaxed on the two ballads (I Can't Get Startedand Body And Soul) while coming up with aconstant flow of appealing ideas on the mediumtempoversions of Tea For Two and Indiana.
And throughout, Nat Cole shows that he reallywas one of the top swing pianists of the era.
In October 1943, Lester Young rejoined theCount Basie Orchestra after being absent nearlythree years. Because of the recording strike of1942-44, he was not able to record with the fullBasie band (other than one date in which Countwas absent). But because he was signed to adifferent label than Basie and one that settledfairly early with the musicians union, by late-1943 he was able to record as a leader. On 28December 1943 Pres had one of his greatestrecord dates. Joined by a top-notch rhythmsection comprised of pianist Johnny Guarnieri,bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Sid Catlett,Young is heard in peak form on Just You, JustMe, I Never Knew and his uptempo bluesAfternoon Of a Basie-ite, playing with joy andconstant creativity. Stewart's bowed solos (towhich he hums along an octave higher) are wittywhile Guarnieri, who could be a real musicalchameleon, mostly sticks to Count Basie andTeddy Wilson in his solos. The classic of thedate, Sometimes I'm Happy, is one of those rareperformances where every note is perfect,whether it be Stewart's charming solo or the wayYoung ends the performance with a quote from"My Sweetie Went Away."The other two sessions on this collectionteam Pres with key members of the Count BasieOrchestra in combos. The three spiritedoriginals, After Theatre Jump, Six Cats And APrince and an exuberant Destination K.C, haveYoung joined in the frontline by trumpeter BuckClayton and trombonist Dickie Wells, twodistinctive players who like Pres were part ofBasie's early successes. One can hear in Young'ssolo on After Theatre Jump where IllinoisJacquet came from and, through Jacquet, a fullgeneration of R&B tenors. Lester Leaps Againis particularly special for it features Young as theonly horn, interacting at length with Basie andthe classic rhythm section in a blues groovesimilar to One O'Clock Jump.
Forty days later, Young was back in thestudio with the Basie rhythm section for fourmore numbers. Drummer Shadow Wilson hadtaken Jo Jones' place when Jones was draftedbut the magic is still there as the quintetperforms two of Pres' originals, Ghost Of AChance and Indiana. A highpoint is Young'slyrical Blue Lester although each of theseselections has its memorable moments.
1944 looked as if it were turning out to beone of Lester Young's greatest years, particularlyafter he was featured in the Academy Awardwinningfilm short Jammin' The Blues. But thedraft board caught up with him in October andthe next year would be a horrible one for Young.
The quiet noncomformist could not adjust toArmy life or the institutionalized racism of theperiod and he spent part of the time in amilitary prison. When he was discharged inlate-1945, Young returned to his earlier playingform but he was torn apart on the inside, bothemotionally and mentally. Over time bothdepression and excessive drinking would ruin hishealth and, although there were many musicalhighpoints during the 1950s, Lester Young'sformer zest for life was gone. After too littleeating and too much drinking, he passed awayon 15 March 1959 when he was only 49.
However some of Lester Young's happiestmoments on record are contained in thisdefinitive collection, taken from a musicalgolden age when Young was truly the Presidentof the tenor-sax.Scott Yanow
Author of 8 jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing,Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76"