Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lester Young & Teddy Wilson, 1956

Since I'm currently re-reading Teddy Wilson's excellent autobiography, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz, I've given myself the chance to rediscover the many LPs by the great pianist that I own. I first heard of Wilson via Benny Goodman, as he was a member of the swing clarinetist's groundbreaking Trio and Quartet in the 1930s, alongside Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton. One of the most respected pianists in jazz history, Wilson enjoyed a long, successful career and recorded extensively. One of my favorites among his many albums is Pres and Teddy, a reunion with tenor saxophone legend Lester Young cut for Verve in 1956. Pres and Teddy had worked together on countless occasions throughout their careers, most notably on the series of outstanding sessions they recorded for Columbia with Billie Holiday in the '30s and '40s. No wonder, then, that there's such chemistry between the two on this album, something that is evident from the first few bars of the opening track, a peppy reading of "All of Me" that finds Young at some point briefly quoting from the Harry Nemo ballad "'Tis Autumn." The album was recorded in New York City in one single session on January 13, 1956, and producer Norman Granz stayed true to his usual practice of giving free rein to both musicians, who feel completely at ease in a quartet setting with bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Jo Jones. The repertoire is strictly comprised of standards, a familiar territory that offers Teddy and Pres the chance to improvise freely.

Wilson, Young, and Jo Jones
Though Ramey and Jones do a superb job supporting the two leaders—and Jones even gets a couple of brief opportunities to solo—the main emphasis is on tenor and piano, with plenty of room for Young and Wilson to shine. Some of the selections ("Love Me or Leave Me," "Taking a Chance on Love") are taken at a medium or fast tempo and are often introduced by Wilson's elegant piano, which sooner or later gives way to Young's tasteful contributions on tenor. Just three years away from the end of his life, Pres is still in fine form here, and his playing is never less than impressive. Richard Whiting and Leo Robin's "Louise" sounds like a bit of an odd choice, since it isn't a tune that often crops up on jazz albums of the period, but our two men work wonders with it by taking it at an agreeably bouncy pace. But it's the two true ballads, "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and particularly "Prisoner of Love," that catch our attention as the highlights of the set. The musical understanding between Wilson and Young is absolutely flawless, and the tenorist's breathy, soulful approach to both tunes is especially appropriate. The 1986 CD reissue (which is the one I'm playing while writing this) adds a Pres original, "Pres Returns," that didn't make it onto the original LP, a bluesy melody that affords both Young and Wilson a great deal of space to improvise. Overall, this is a highly satisfying encounter between two jazz greats that is so good one wishes it were longer.

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