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Ken Burns Jazz Collection: The Definitive Lester Young
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First coming to prominence with Count Basie's band in 1936, Lester Young found a new way to play tenor saxophone, using a soft, airy sound and an understated beat. In the process, he also created a new way to play jazz, developing a flowing, melodic inventiveness and a detachment that would influence the bop and cool schools to come. Young did much of his best work as a sideman in the first few years of his public career, and the first 13 tracks of this collection focus on his work up to 1940. Basie's hard-swinging big band was a terrific foil for Young's own novel blend of rhythmic invention and languid sound, heard here on tunes like "Taxi War Dance" and the uptempo "Twelfth Street Rag". With Basie's smaller Kansas City Seven, Young created masterpieces like his signature "Lester Leaps In". Young and his friend Billie Holiday shared an uncanny musical empathy, represented by four tracks here. There's also a sampling of Young's later recordings, including his trio version of "I've Found a New Baby", with Nat Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums, and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" from a 1957 reunion with Basie at the Newport Jazz Festival. --Stuart Broomer
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So this album may be a better start than a '50s LP such as the Verve date with Oscar Peterson. At the same time, the mastering--or lack of it--is frankly quite puzzling throughout the Burns' series. It's one thing to leave in the surface noise of the miraculous find of the complete Goodman Carnegie Concert from 1938, but many of the Lester dates were commercial studio recordings that not only were not noisy but demonstrated quite impressively his smooth and mellow, light and graceful sound. Like a number of other recordings in the Burns' series, this one tends to overdo the treble and, as a result, "pinch" Lester's unique sound. Also, while the inclusion of Billie Holiday and Lester's "Sailboat in the Moonlight" is to be applauded, the thin, anemic and distant quality of Lady Day's voice is inexcusable (hadn't the engineers heard of equalizers?), vitiating the efforts of both performers. Still, if you can't get Verve Jazz Masters Vol. 30, this one can be recommended, at least as a start.
It should be noted that the first paragraph above applies as much to Billie Holiday, Lester's musical companion and soulmate. You haven't really heard Lady Day until you can "get" what she was doing when Benny Goodman hired her in 1934 and in the definitive recordings thereafter--the vintage years for both artists are 1935-1949 (unlike some listeners, I don't hear the dramatic decline in Lester's playing immediately following his army experiences, though his late '30s-early '40s recordings are certainly pick of the crop).
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