The "Kansas City" Sessions
A Peak from Prez
The porkpie hat. The horn cocked at a crazy angle, big eyes bugging. The tremor of vibrato that suggests maybe he's got the shakes. The brainy phrases that seem to float in a different airspace from the rest of the music. Lester Young (1909–1959), jazz original, was the kind of figure who'd let the myths precede him onto the bandstand. And then when it came time to solo, he'd create more.
Young was key to the development of bebop kingpin Charlie Parker (the young player studied Young's early recordings with Count Basie). An icon of cool way before "cool jazz" hit in the 1950s, Young hung with Billie Holiday on some of her classics too. In between, on his own records, he established a jazz of poise and utter incandescence. This record catches a small but significant sliver of that.
Recorded by a small group of Basie musicians (called the Kansas City Six) in moments stolen away from the big band in 1938 and 1944, these sessions benefit from a freewheeling attitude, a kind of furloughed-soldier irreverence, that is rare for the times. This light feeling sparks exceptional solos—grooving on that Basie heartbeat, Young makes outbursts of intricate saxophone slide easily along. His playing is fluid and yet also riddled with unexpected switchbacks, and when he digs into a standard, like "Them There Eyes," his scissoring phrases have an air of modernity.
The conventional assessment of Lester Young is that his best work happened before World War II—he encountered recurring racial hostility during his military service, struggles that some biographers believe led him into alcoholism. The 1944 recordings here, made shortly after his discharge, are as exuberant as those from before the war, yet Young's solos are tinged with new restraint, a willingness to hang back. Later in the '40s and early '50s, the man Billie Holiday called "Prez" for his regal bearing was one of the few swing-era musicians to transition to more modern styles. He became less interested in dazzling people than conjuring thick mood pieces; the beautifully recorded With the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1952 showcases Young as a deep thinker whose every line feels fully composed, in the manner of a lyric.
Released: 1997, Commodore
Key Tracks: "Them There Eyes," "Pagin' the Devil," "I Got Rhythm."
Catalog Choice: With the Oscar Peterson Trio; The Complete Alladin Sessions
Next Stop: The Count Basie Orchestra: Best of 1937–1939
After That: Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt: Boss Tenors
Book Pages: 884–885