In his prime, ‘Prez’ could make up long, complex melodies on the spur of the moment, and when he recorded alternative takes of the same track, he usually played an almost completely different solo; there are very few jazz musicians you can say that about. Critics have traditionally preferred the early to the late Prez, but it is now fashionable to dismiss this view and argue instead that his playing remained just as good; the generally very reliable critic Scott Yanow believes this, and Douglas H. Daniel’s book Lester Leaps In, even goes so far as to suggest that the belief that Lester Young’s playing deteriorated is racist (why should a great black artist have to decline?) This all strikes me as very strange, however, since what was special about Lester Young was that his playing relied on inspiration, rather than stock phrases, and the inspiration quite evidently faded in his later years, as, even more obviously, did his technique. His ballad playing took on a new fragility and melancholic depth, which is what makes the late work particularly worth hearing, but to suggest any equanimity with the outpouring of genius to be witnessed in his recordings from the ‘30s to the mid ‘40s is surely to fail to fully appreciate those recordings.
The Most Important Recordings of
This is an excellent survey: it gets you both versions of Lester’s 1936 debut on ‘Shoe Shine Boy’, some of the classic Count Basie big-band performances, a taste of the Billie Holiday partnership, some of the soundtrack from the film ‘Jammin’ the Blues’, and a couple of his faltering but poignant final statements.
1941 / 1944
This CD (no. 43 on the French Jazz Archives label) gets you all of my very favourite Prez recordings: the 1943 Dicky Wells sessions, the 1943 quartet sessions, and the 1944 Kansas City Six and Seven sessions. This is the pinnacle of straight-ahead swinging jazz, and possibly of jazz improvisation itself. Apart from all the inspired improvised melodies Prez made up on the spur of the moment – apart from the genius of Lester Young, that is – listen out for the hilarious Dicky Wells on trombone, who sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, drunk.
Apollo Concert, Harlem 1946
A crackly recording of an amazing concert, in which tenor giants Prez, Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet all played together. Most jazz fans prefer either Prez or Hawkins, and listening to them side by side should help you decide which side of the fence you belong on. Jacquet nicely raises the temperature with his usual proto-R&B wailing, but he also shows his more sophisticated side and holds his own nicely in this exalted company.
The Jazz Giants
This 1956 recording, cut three years before he died, is the best late Lester Young album. He sounds reasonably healthy and inspired, and the sadness usually in evidence in his late playing is here transformed into art. There is even some of the old exuberance to be heard on ‘Gigantic Blues’, and although his technique and imagination are no longer what they used to be, he shows he could still dig in and swing like no-one else.