A couple of months ago I called Lee Konitz and the first thing he said was, “I heard that session of Benny Goodman and Lester Young together on the radio today. Benny was playing that clarinet, so full of vibrato, and then Lester came in, so clean and pure, and I started weeping. No one else has meant so much to me.” A photo of Lester Young hangs in Lee’s practice room.
I brought 18 classic pre-1941 Young solos up to Lee’s apartment, secretly curious as to how many of them he would recognize.
Lee could mime or sing along with 17 of the 18 solos, proving that Lee first internalized Young’s music and then created his own style out of it.
Lee’s teacher Lennie Tristano also loved Lester Young. Indeed, Young’s name comes up repeatedly in all of the Tristanoite literature, always with much approbation for the 1936-1940 records.
Tristano then rejected post-1941 Young. Lee alludes to a similar perspective below.
I’m not on the same page in terms of disregarding later Lester. However, Lester’s early body of work is obviously transcendent. Getting to know this era led me to appreciate later Lester, too. You just can’t start with the easy-to-find late period Verve recordings. You must hear the early work.
One of the difficulties is that Lester didn’t make any records as a leader in the Thirties. Most of his playing you can only hear during relatively brief solos with Count Basie or Billie Holiday. You have to commit to listening to a lot of non-Young music to hear his contributions. Modern musicians aren’t used to working so hard to find the meat.
Walter Page and Jo Jones are on all of the following tracks. For those who are inspired to find more, it’s out there: these 18 solos are just part of Young’s pre-1941 discography.
EI: I think you’ll recognize most of these solos.
LK: I hope so!
Lee sang in the middle of the first phrases, “call and response,” and began snapping his fingers.
LK: Harold Danko and I used to sing that solo together on gigs, and especially in workshops where we showed that learning a solo like this is essential, just for the discipline. How can you improvise two choruses like that? I suspect he laid for that, really. There’s no second take, right?
EI: No, but on other live performances from the early years there are both similarities and differences.
LK: What is it that makes this so accessible? And that sound: I’m always surprised, in a way, at how fast his vibrato is. He’s usually described as a no-vibrato player, but he is using one. But it never sounds corny or has the wrong feeling, that feeling “on the sleeve.”
EI: He’s not sentimental, you mean.
LK: Not in the least! On the slower pieces, some sentimentality was inevitable, especially in the later days when he had less energy.
He had the genes, I guess, and the good fortune to have a disciplinarian musical father. The father was probably a pain in the ass who taught him how to take care of business.
EI: How did you first learn about the “Lady Be Good” solo?
LK: Oh, just hearing the record.
EI: Did you know about it before working with Lennie Tristano?
LK: I was studying Lester in those days, true; I’m not sure of the order of events. Actually, I played with a band in 1945 with a fine Lester Young-style tenor player, Stan Kosow. I remember smoking with him a little bit and listening to these records. I got great pleasure from that!
LK: The first bridge sounds worked out.
EI: The hits are not only worked out, but incorrectly played besides!
LK: There is another take of this one: it’s got some of the same phrases, right?
EI: Yeah. And there’s the Bird on tenor where he plays some of the exact same phrases, too!
[Bird in a room at the Savoy Hotel in Chicago in 1943. It’s been called different things; usually “Shoe” is in the title.]
Both these early Lester Young solos have two full 32-bar choruses, which is just so nice. There aren’t so many others as long. It’s his first record date.
LK: He was waiting for this! He was ready.
EI: You learned this solo too, right?
LK: Oh yes. I need to review though, at this point. Leave this CD with me, will you? Today, with the computer, it’s so nice to hear the solo slower without the distortion we had in the old days when we slowed it down.
EI: How did you learn the solos back then?
LK: Picking up the needle and putting it back a little bit…
EI: Because these were 78’s, right?
LK: Yeah. But it would work, we still got the information. But now it’s really a well-constructed procedure. The kids are eating it up!
EI: It’s a lot easier now. But maybe you got something else when it was just the needle chewing down a 78…?
LK: We had to be absorbed in it enough to learn it, true.
Here, Lee quietly listened at first, but than abruptly let loose and sang along with the first four bars of the second chorus. I had already noted these phrases myself: they are three articulations of the same idea played differently each time.
LK: That is so perfect we wonder if could have been improvised. Is there a second take? No – it doesn’t matter, if it’s that good, it doesn’t matter if it was really improvised.
EI: You played this solo with Marshall Brown on a recording.
LK: Really? That’s sort of egotistical…
LK: This is one of my favorites. My Jewish soul loves the minor keys, I guess.
EI: Lester loved the major sixth degree in a minor key. I’m not sure, but I think Lester loved the minor keys more than most of his predecessors. I don’t associate Jelly Roll, Pops, or Hawkins with the minor key as much…
LK: It’s a shame he didn’t compose more. There’s not much more than this and “Tickle-Toe,” right? That’s also in a minor key.
EI: Also the later piece, “Blue Lester.”
LK: Some of those riffs in the Basie band, though: they must be his, even though they are uncredited.
LK: He just didn’t play like this later with other players like Johnny Guarnieri or Nat Cole. He needed Basie and the big band. These arrangements gave him something to work against. We also must give credit to Walter Page and Jo Jones, who play so strong. Sometimes I miss Walter Page in today’s bass players…
LK: Phew! On all these solos, there’s not an incorrect or misplayed note, but somehow you know he’s making almost everything up.
EI: After “Lady Be Good,” this is currently my favorite Young solo…
LK: Oh, boy! It is magic, for sure.
LK: The blues can be so corny in the hands of other players, but this is pure music. Warne Marsh and I played this as a head.
EI: Did you learn the solos separately or did one of you learn them first and then show the other?
LK: I think we both learned them and then could play them together without discussing them, really. I don’t remember showing each other any of the solos; we both just knew them already.
I’m pretty sure “Pound Cake” is on those tapes of Warne and I playing at the Jazz Showcase in the mid-1970s with Wilbur Campbell. Joe Segal recorded them on the crudest cassettes, but Mark Levinson has done an incredible job of cleaning them up. You’ll have to hear them someday. I’m pretty sure they will be released.
Warne was the most true to the Lester Young ethos. So many guys came out of Pres: Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Paul Desmond, Wardell Gray, Allen Eager…but Warne did not just an imitation, but embodied the actual spirit of Lester Young.
Have you been exploring Warne Marsh, too, Ethan?
EI: Yes, some things are just amazing…
LK: What have you found?
EI: “It’s You or No One,” 1959 with Peter Ind and Dick Scott.
LK: Ah hah. Well, I’ve said this before, but I really love those four tunes with Paul Chambers and Paul Motian on his first record. Not the other tracks as much…
EI: Well, Paul Chambers is giving you some of that Walter Page there for sure!
LK: He almost crosses the line in the second half: it is almost too sweet.
EI: Oh, with those fourths?
He was a singer on his horn. He loved Frank Sinatra, you know. The only recordings we have of Lester actually singing are not very serious, but I’m sure he could have sung a standard just beautifully.
He always credited the white musicians Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey. Have you heard Trumbauer?
EI: Just enough to hear a little of where Lester comes from.
LK: It’s interesting that Lester was so forthright about admiring and emulating white musicians. Trumbauer is worth hearing, but as for Jimmy Dorsey, I thought he was an instrumental virtuoso but not really a jazz player.
EI: Some people think he got saxophone “false fingerings” from Dorsey.
LK: It could be. Lester’s rhythm, though, comes from someplace else – probably Louis Armstrong.
When the track started, Lee said, “That’s the other tenor player,” and I said, “What?” I didn’t realize that Herschel Evans gets the break and then Pres gets the chorus. Now it’s obvious but I was confused by the strange structure! The confusion was worth it just to have Lee be so certain: it was a great moment.
LK: These are hard changes for the day. But Lester doesn’t have any problem!
EI: The bridge is something else here.
LK: Well, I don’t know who did it first, Charlie Christian or Lester Young, but they both could play swing riffs on the A sections, and then come up with something just so surprising for the bridge.
EI: Oh, that was Christian’s thing, too? I haven’t listened to him much.
LK: Charlie Christian played the best bridges!
Lee sang this longish, fastish solo impeccably. He looked quite sad at the end.
LK: How can you talk about these jewels? Each one seems better than the next. Ethan, why are you exploring Lester Young now?
EI: I’m trying to fill in some holes in my playing. But also, the more I listen to Lester Young, the more I hear how amazing he is.
LK: Same thing here. I love him more all the time.
EI: This tune is corny, in a way, but they make it so hip.
LK: When you can play like this, the material becomes almost less important – it’s just a springboard for pure improvisation and pure music.
Lee didn’t sing as much as dance and pantomime this one. He threw his head back at the start of the second A, miming the clarinet’s squall.
LK: Ah, the metal clarinet. Clarinet was my first instrument.
Again, notice that surprising bridge.
EI: This is one of the early big band charts I dig the most. Herschel Evans is credited, actually.
LK: What’s the name of this again? I know this one well…
EI: “Taxi War Dance.” This was one of his own favorites.
EI: Lester loved the augmented triad.
LK: Yes, I think that was as far out as he got. He expanded chords with 6ths and 9ths too, but didn’t really need more than that. Coleman Hawkins had more of the advanced harmonic information. “Body and Soul” alone…
LK: This one is less familiar – I don’t think I know this one.
EI: It’s the first song Billie Holiday and Young recorded together. There’s some nice harmonic moves here.
LK: You can’t respect a melody more than that.
EI: Is this performance why it’s on Motion?
I remember that I suddenly felt like playing bass lines on the saxophone behind Sonny Dallas when he soloed… He said he liked it! Of course, that might have been a little arrogant, to think I could play a bass line next to Elvin Jones…
EI: It’s a great track. Don’t go back and change a note!
Lee sang this one too.
EI: I hear bebop suggested by that ornamented bit.
LK: Charlie Parker took this approach and made it his own…which is what we are all supposed to do. I admired Charlie Parker the most when he played something like Lester. In the later years, sometimes Bird could get too bluesy for me.
EI: I read somewhere that you thought “Yardbird Suite” – which is almost the changes to “Lady Be Good” – had the pure feeling.
LK: Oh yes, that solo is one of the greatest. I remember what Lennie Tristano said about that solo. Almost at the end, Bird plays three C’s: “Dut dah dah!” And Tristano complained about the vibrato on those notes. He said that it was a perfect solo except for that momentary vibrato.
EI: Well… [Both of us laugh]
LK: I heard Phil Schaap on the radio insisting a few Lester Young blues phases on something later with Basie were just like John Coltrane. There’s no doubt that John knew Lester’s style.
EI: Billy Hart says that John Coltrane comes from Lester Young and Sonny Rollins comes from Coleman Hawkins.
LK: Ah hah. Well, that might be right.
People say that Lester played behind the beat, but do you hear him playing behind on any of these solos?
EI: No, it’s right in there.
LK: Exactly. Right in there. Well, maybe later on he was more behind.
EI: I’ve been paying attention recently to how much your beat dances and swings while improvising, which is obviously something you learned from Lester Young.
LK: Swinging remains the hardest thing to do, really – I’m still working on it! Lester had it down.