Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lester Young — A Centennial Tribute

For the lyricists of the Great American Songbook, it was difficult enough to say "I love you" in 32 bars, ­expressing all that passion and profundity in one brief chorus. Yet when the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young played those same songs, he crammed even more artistry into that same small space. When Young (1909-1959) plays a chorus of a ballad—or a blues or a riff number—you hear more than "I love you." You hear babies gurgling, flowers blooming, couples making love, dogs barking, mothers crying to their kids, worlds colliding.

Young, whose centennial ­arrives on Aug. 27, created a new approach to the saxophone and to jazz in general. His playing was, by turns, lighter and gentler than anything that had come before it, but also capable of driving with tremendous force and energy.

His 1943 solo on "Sometimes I'm Happy," made shortly after Young's return to the Count Basie Orchestra, is a prime ­example of the President (usually shortened to "Prez")—as Billie Holiday called Young—touching on every emotion known to man in a single, short solo. He's obviously ­inspired by Irving Caesar's title and lyric as much as he is by Vincent Youmans' melody. Most popular songs present the states of "happy" and "sad" as monolithic poles of feeling, but Young seems to be jazzed by the way that Caesar and Youmans mix both together. His ­interpretation of the tune is both at the same time, a constant state of melancholic ­euphoria.

The song is in ABAB form, meaning that the second 16 bars are a repeat, melodically, of the first, and Young uses that as an impetus to inject more jazzy variations into the second half. Even at the tail end of the first "B," the part that matches the words "If I can find the sun in your eyes," Young weaves in an amazing embellishment, a two-bar phrase that could be the ­basis for a song in itself, but, more important, perfectly compliments the Youmans melody. After bassist Slam Stewart's ­simultaneous bowing-and-humming episode and pianist Johnny Guarnieri's brief statement, Prez returns with an amazing coda that's almost completely improvised, except that it uses a phrase from "My Sweetie Went Away" (a 1923 pop song recorded by Bessie Smith) as a point of departure. This lick had a life of its own: It not only also turns up in the verse to Cole Porter's "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," but Young had used it earlier in "Here It Is Tomorrow Again," and it was later heard in deference to Prez by Gerry Mulligan ("Jeru"), Stan Getz ("Yesterdays") and King Pleasure and Oscar Peterson in their own tribute versions of "Sometimes I'm Happy."

Small wonder that Young was a major influence not just as an improviser but as an ­interpreter. A whole school of tenor saxophonists identified themselves as virtual vice presidents, including Getz, Wardell Gray and Paul Quinichette (who even billed himself as such). But Young exerted an equally pervasive influence on several generations of jazz and popular singers, both directly and through such key acolytes as Holiday and Frank Sinatra, who told ­Arlene Francis in 1981: "I knew Lester well, we were close friends and we had a mutual ­admiration society. I took from what he did and he took from what I did." Sinatra also praised Young for "knowing the lyrics" to the songs that he played: "knowing what the song is about has to come from the lyric, not merely notes on a piece of paper."

Will Friedwald writes about jazz for the WSJ. Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D9, Aug. 19, 2009

" You Got to Be Original, Man! "

Tim Price here, for RICO REEDS, talking about some things on my mind lately.

We have all remarked when an innocent child speaks their mind and reveals something candid, with no worries about consequences, failure, or judgment that makes us think. We also know there is something envious about that special quality; raw freedom to express with no fears or hang-ups. When a young student drums on a desk, draws on a paper, or sings, sincerity is at its best. And it’s all valid because it’s sincere.

Our attraction to music is a personal one. Sure, there are peer pressures, and multi musical purposes, but somewhere in our hearts we have our own musical tastes. To step forward and play what you feel might be your best move.I feel it’s tragic to not explore music and life through creativity and self development. I respect the ideal of traditional development of needed musical skills but not at the cost of creativity. No one should have to wait some undetermined amount of time to compose something or even think about composing something.Ditto with improvisation. Same with any writing or art. It’s sincere. It’s in the moment.

The path of a true "artist" is a rocky road. It's like walking up wet glass at times but after a while it's fun.It is your business to keep the channel open.You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.You'll note a slow emergence almost imperceptible. it will be something you never forget.

Now's the time tell a genuine story, speak the truth, and someone will appreciate it.It is part and parcel of being an artist.

Keep the channel open, and try your best.You'll learn something special.

The quote at the beginning of this weeks blog was from Lester Young. If you want to hear something original-check out Lester Young.

I'll be talking more about ~stepping forward~ and taking your chances. Now's the time.

Till next week, thanks for reading this blog and keep on your path.
~ Tim Price ( forum admin. for Rico Reeds ). Tim is also a Sax on the Web author.
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The Dissonance said...

“Originality’s the thing. You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things but without originality you ain’t really nowhere. Gotta be original.” - Lester Young

Harri Rautiainen said...

Thanks for your comment, Jim. A very valid point.

After that I expanded the blog article with Tim Price's recent blog item re: originality.


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