Just as Dinah Washington had easily the best voice in jazz, Ben Webster had easily the best instrumental tone. The slurred velvety purr, and on occasion growl, which he produced from his tenor has always mystified other saxophone players; he used a fairly ordinary instrument, mouthpiece, and reed, but his imitators, the best of which was Harold Ashby, never really got close. His improvising was fairly simple both melodically and harmonically, but he did have his distinctive phrases, and with a sound like that, packed full of emotion as it always was, the listening was invariably compulsive. This 1963 quartet session finds him accompanied by younger, more progressive players – Thad Jones on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Richard Davies on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums – and sounding all the better for it. The material is also superior, with the highlights being the surprisingly progressive mid-tempo Zawinul original ‘Frogs Legs’, the classic ballad ‘Travlin’ Light’, and ‘Like Someone in Love’, here given its definitive treatment. I used to own a better release of this material, an album entitled ‘Travlin’ Light’ that included all these tracks and more, but unfortunately I lost it.
Meets Don Byas
This 1968 session, which finds two very different masters of swing tenor, Webster and Byas, both within five years of the end and rather the worse for wear, is absolutely full of character. The support is provided by a superior rhythm section: the virtuosic and dazzlingly inventive Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu on piano, the obscure, but very impressive bass player Peter Trunk, and the ever-reliable Al ‘Tootie’ Heath on drums. The competitive, aggressive and jagged-toned Byas (he once famously pulled a knife on Charlie Parker), whose style was somehow both post-swing and pre-bop, shows his adventurousness right from the start. Webster, by contrast, just does his usual thing with his usual amazing sound: nothing else was ever required. The resulting music is pretty rough around the edges, but as authentic as it gets, since everybody very much means it.