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Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, December 17, 1999, Music

Lester Young

The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions (Verve)

No jazz musician has played with the youthful grace that Lester "Prez" Young displayed during his 1936-40 stint with Count Basie, and none has exhibited the world-weariness that Young exhibited on record at the end of his life. Yet even in his last years, he played beautiful, if wraith-like, solos, most notably on Columbia's 1957 Sound of Jazz album. This 8-CD set contains tracks that Young cut in 1946 with a trio including Nat Cole and Buddy Rich, but the bulk of the material comes from 1949-59, when Prez was declining physically and artistically, but still capable of improvising impressively. He appears in quartets, quintets, and sextets with collective personnel that includes trumpeters Jesse Drakes, Harry Edison, and Roy Eldridge, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and pianists Hank Jones, John Lewis, and Teddy Wilson. Given his physical and mental states -- he was drinking heavily and suffered from severe depression -- Young plays surprisingly well; his style had evolved quite a bit since 1940. He recorded more slow-tempoed selections, blues, and some ballad masterpieces such as "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You" (Savoy). His tone became increasingly thick; he used the lower register more and swung less buoyantly. From the mid-Forties on, he employed odd intervals, which gave his playing an eccentric quality. In his later years, Young used a breathy vibrato that, coincidentally, made him sound like Ben Webster on ballads. Generally, his early-Fifties improvising is laudable. He turns in fine solos on ballads ("Can't We Be Friends"), blues ("Undercover Girl Blues"), and up-tempo numbers ("In a Little Spanish Town"). After about 1955, however, Young's work became more repetitive and economical, i.e., less inventive; at times, it's downright listless. He displays far less energy than his contemporaries Wilson, Eldridge, and Edison. However, his last solos are strangely moving, giving us an aural picture of a dying man.


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