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Perfect Sax Solos

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24 Smooth, late-night classics with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and many more.

Lester Young: She's Funny That Way
Coleman Hawkins: It's The Talk of the Town
Charlie Parker: My Old Flame
Johnny Hodges: Night Wind
Lester Young I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)
Chu Berry: On The Sunny Side of The Street
Flip Phillips: Sweet ond Lovely
Coleman Hawkins: Someone To Watch Over Me << long sound clip
Willie Smith: The Way You Look Tonight
Lester Young: Something To Remember You By << long sound clip
Ben Webster: I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
Charlie Parker: Don't Blame Me
Chu Berry: A Ghost of a Chance
Lester Young: East of The Sun
Benny Carter: Stairway to the Stars << long sound clip
Coleman Hawkins: What is There To Say?
Babe Russin: Like Someone in Love
Lester Young: Polka Dots and Moonbeams
Charlie Parker: The Gypsy
Coleman Hawkins: Sophisticated Lady
Sidney Bechet: When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Buddy Tate; Blue and Sentimental
Lester Young: These Foolish Things
Coleman Hawkins; I'm Through With Love

Picture the scene. A group of advertising creatives are sitting across the boardroom table from their business clients reviewing proposals for an upcoming television campaign. The commercial under discussion - it could be for a perfume, a famous brand of whiskey, an exotic holiday location, a soothing cough remedy or even an insurance policy - has been carefully structured to deliver the necessary brand and product messages. All that is needed now - the icing on the cake, you could say - is the appropriate musical accompaniment, something to suggest mellow relaxation or stress-free reassurance. The composer of the accompanying jingle has already selected the one orchestral instrument which he knows will achieve the desired effect. Which one, you ask? Why, the saxophone, of course.

There is something inherent in the saxophone’s tonal capabilities which enables it to suggest romance or blissful calm, a languorous quality which, in the hands of the right musicians, can create an alluring mood. Even the shape of the instrument itself is seductive! No wonder the saxophone is employed so often in a supportive musical role in films, television and advertisements. It has an unbeatable ability to capture or imply a specific ambience. It’s just this capability which we are celebrating with our marvellous roster of legendary jazz saxophonists, each a master of the instrument, unfolding a series of impeccable ballad performances.

So where did this unusual instrument spring from? It was perfected by its inventor, the Belgian clarinettist Adolphe (originally Antoine Joseph) Sax as recently as the mid-nineteenth century. Compared with the majority of instruments employed in the orchestra, this makes the saxophone something of a parvenu. Born in 1814, Sax, whose father was an instrument-maker, had already created a workable bass clarinet before setting out to connect a clarinet mouthpiece to a cone-shaped tube, the resulting creation perpetually dubbed the ‘saxophone’. The original intention was that the device should be made of wood; later, brass was substituted and it continues to provide the main element of the modern instrument, although one manufacturer did experiment with a plastic-bodied model in the 1950s.

Within a few years of the development of his first prototype, Sax had patented a total of eight saxophonic variants, ranging from the miniature sopranino to the vastly cumbersome contrabass. Originally staked financially by the distinguished classical composer Hector Berlioz, Sax lived to see his inventions manufactured on an extensive scale, celebrated their incorporation into the French military band structure and was doubtless mightily pleased when a Professorship of Saxophone was established at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857. Sadly, he was less fortunate in his business affairs, becoming bankrupt, his final years spun out on a small government pension.

In a process whose success would have gladdened the heart of any latter-day entrepreneur, the news of Sax’s innovations spread like wildfire, prompting the early adoption of his saxophones throughout the Old and New Worlds. In America in the years prior to World War One, the marching ‘wind’ bands still so beloved of US high schools and colleges began to incorporate phalanxes of saxophone players, usually majoring on the alto and tenor versions. Meanwhile, a number of vaudeville acts also began to take advantage of the wide-ranging saxophonic ‘family,’ their all-saxophone bands emphasising the jokey sound effects which could be produced on this most versatile of instruments. The reminiscences of many pioneer jazz musicians refer to the public appearances and recordings made by these entertainers, their shiny instruments and comic virtuosity proving irresistible to impressionable youngsters around the country.

The outstanding characteristic of the saxophone is its uncanny ability to create an array of sounds, many of which appear to simulate the human voice. It can be made to laugh, to wail, to bark, to caress, to evoke the barnyard or to romanticise a pretty tune. It is this capacity to create its own distinctive musical aura which makes the saxophone the instrument of choice for dance bands and jazz groups. In jazz, where individual creativity is valued ahead of all other attributes, the saxophone has allowed players to produce music which mirrors their own personalities - whether assertive or diffident, aggressive or refined - a case of ‘all human life is there’, as they used to say. This helps to explain the ascendancy of this noble instrument, and of the tenor saxophone in particular, to its present position as the leading innovatory instrument in jazz. Indeed, our compilation reflects this, with contributions from such stirring tenor-saxophonist stylists as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Chu Berry, and that’s not to overlook the input by major alto-saxophonists like Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, or that of the coruscating soprano saxophone virtuoso Sidney Bechet.

If ever one man’s musical personality was evident in his performances it was that of Lester Willis Young, forever known as ‘Prez’ in acknowledgement of his nickname of ‘The President’, first bestowed on him by the singer Billie Holiday as a tribute to his jazz prowess. Young’s sound is light but forceful, the performances seemingly laconic, with the kind of simplicity which often conceals clever artistry. Young’s stance was utterly different to that adopted by his great predecessor and bandstand competitor, Coleman Hawkins, who preferred a more decorative approach, with a richer tone. Indeed, Young was once fired from the celebrated Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York for failing to sound exactly like Hawkins. By 1946 when he recorded She’s Funny That Way, Young was accepted as a crucial innovator, his style, with its rhythmic surprises and harmonic boldness, now seen as a precursor to modern jazz. He often led groups of his own and it is his work with these small combos which we showcase in our compilation. Bebop pianist Joe Albany plays a brittle introduction on She’s Funny which does little to arouse Young as he sleep-walks affably through this familiar theme. He sounds more engaged by These Foolish Things, his masterly paraphrase helping to explain why he inspired a whole generation of later saxophonists like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Brew Moore. It was Moore who said, “Anyone who doesn’t play like Lester is wrong.”

I’m Confessin’, originally made famous by Louis Armstrong, is another languorous Young outing, with only minimal intervention from pianist Argonne Thornton (aka Sadik Hakim). Eight months later, Young appears more confident and assured on Something To Remember You By and the lovely East Of The Sun. The guitarist is Chuck Wayne and it’s the still-active Gene Di Novi on piano. Polka Dots And Moonbeams from 1949 is considered to be one of his finest post-war ballad performances. The superior piano is Hank Jones. Young died ten years later, aged only forty-nine, having forecast that he would never make it to fifty.

Oddly enough, Coleman Hawkins ended up much the same way as Young. After a career studded with mighty achievements, Hawkins seemed to lose interest and let himself go. Several of our chosen tracks are from sessions made in Los Angeles in 1945 when Hawkins was working locally with a top-flight band including exciting trumpet star Howard McGhee and pianist Sir Charles Thompson. Hawkins rhapsodises through It’s The Talk Of The Town, his deft attack and indefatigable inspiration producing a definitive reading of this ‘nice old tune’. No wonder it became a best-seller for Capitol Records. George Gershwin’s pretty Someone To Watch Over Me receives a more lush treatment, the tone like molasses as Hawkins embellishes the harmonies. The nicely spare piano is by Sir Charles. Incidentally, it was Young who gave him his courtesy title. McGhee’s stately trumpet is heard briefly.

Hawkins settles into Vernon Duke’s What Is There To Say?, the tone broad and fulsome, Allan Reuss’s guitar chords preceding lengthy tenor and piano solos. I’m Through With Love is a touch more urgent as Hawk casually deconstructs the melody. The cheerful trombone is by Vic Dickenson, once a colleague of Young’s in the Count Basie band. Our final Hawkins piece is from a session made in Paris in 1949 with French musicians. Ellington’s immortal Sophisticated Lady is sure-footed, Hawk’s version wrapped in ‘thick, fur-lined phrases’, according to his biographer John Chilton.

Originally inspired by Lester Young, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was from Kansas City, where jazz was always suffused with a blues feeling. Something of a prodigy, he developed a new vocabulary for harmonic improvisation which was crucial in the establishment of bebop. That his alto saxophone sound was equally unique is immediately evident on My Old Flame (from 1947). Poignant yet jubilant, it shows Parker’s gift for the telling phrase and clever use of space. This is lovely music. Don’t Blame Me, from the same session, is poised, imperious almost, the phrasing staccato as Parker implies a tempo increase and re-invents the chord structure. Trumpeter Miles Davis, who was Parker’s regular sideman at the time, sounds hesitant in comparison. The Gypsy is from an earlier period when Bird was in Los Angeles. Pianist Jimmy Bunn opens up before Parker enters ‘close to the edge’ in Brian Priestley’s words, as Bunn chords portentously, anticipating Parker’s impending drug-induced collapse. It’s a pretty tune and Parker’s heart-on-the-sleeve version is genuinely moving.

Johnny Hodges sounds silkier on Night Wind with bassist Billy Taylor’s Big Eight. The soaring fluency and delicate touch on alto are typical of this perennial melodist. The chunky baritone sax is by Harry Carney, another of Ellington’s solo stars. Burly tenorman Chu Berry came to fame with the Cab Calloway orchestra. They support him on A Ghost Of A Chance, an accomplished improvisation which demonstrates his ‘most moving dramatic beauty’ as French critic Hugues Panassie put it. Berry’s melodic logic is equally obvious on his December 1941 recording On The Sunny Side Of The Street. Deep-toned and sonorous, Berry could overcome most competitors in Harlem jam sessions with his ready fund of ideas. The cadenza is very special. Pianist Clyde Hart sounds much like Teddy Wilson.

Joseph ‘Flip’ Phillips is one of only two white soloists featured in our compilation. A star with Woody Herman in the 1940s, Phillips earned considerable notoriety with his grandstanding antics at ‘Jazz At The Philharmonic’ concerts. His mature approach to ballad playing is heard on Sweet And Lovely, revealing his debt to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. The piano fills are by Herman arranger Ralph Burns. Willie Smith was one of the few challengers to the supremacy of Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. Long associated with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Smith was a forceful soloist with a thick, singing tone and knew just how to present a romantic theme like The Way You Look Tonight. Of course, it helped to have Nat King Cole in support on piano!

Ben Webster started out on piano and was taught the rudiments of the saxophone by Lester Young. He went on to create a reputation for ballad playing that is unsurpassed. His breathy tone and luxurious phrasing adorn I Got It Bad, composed by his old boss, Duke Ellington and premiered by vocalist Ivie Anderson. Benny Carter, the ultimate in saxophone urbanity, still plays occasionally at the ripe age of 93. A one-time trumpeter, Carter is the complete renaissance man of jazz, having been a bandleader, composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist in his time. Less passionate than Hodges, his alto performances were always lucid, sometimes cool but never prosaic. Stairway To The Stars with pianist Arnold Ross’s quintet shows off his calm control admirably. Our second white player, Irving ‘Babe’ Russin was best known for his long association with Benny Goodman but was a confident soloist in the big-toned style whenever he was given the chance. Like Someone In Love has Ross at the piano and it is a fine example of tenor-saxophone balladry.

Sidney Bechet was a titanic performer, always fervent, who tended to dominate his bandstand companions. When It’s Sleepy Time Down South was made in London in 1949 with the Humphrey Lyttelton band quietly chording behind him. Bechet’s visit was ‘unofficial’ (unsanctioned by the Musicians’ Union) and these recordings have something of an illicit air to them. Nonetheless, Bechet is in commanding form. The final virtuoso in our roster of stars is George ‘Buddy’ Tate, yet another fine soloist who first came to notice in the Basie band. Here he tackles Blue And Sentimental, an original tune made famous by fellow-Texan Herschel Evans, his predecessor in Basie’s band. Evans was a mentor to Tate and it’s clear that the younger man was keen to avoid a simple re-run of the celebrated Evans version. There are neat solo interludes from pianist Bill Doggett and an obscure guitarist named Louis Speiginer.

And there you have it. Two dozen classic performances by the greatest names in saxophone jazz. Music to feast on, to enjoy and to appreciate over and over again. Could there be a better way to enhance that late night mood?

PETER VACHER



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