The Ear of the President
So a friend is doing a research project on Lester Young. I both love and hate Lester Young, because not only is he perfect, I will never be able to play like him. Ever.
I feel(as do most) that there are two distinct sides to Lester. Pre-War Lester is a man who blazed the trail of burning swing, creating a cornerstone for Bird to build upon. Fearless and undaunted, he played with incredible technique, a new tone, smooth but cutting, and a harmonic sensibility that rivals that of Coleman Hawkins himself, and he did all of this while creating a masterful sense of swing. Lester plowed through rhythm sections which had no knowledge of what he was doing, and still made them(not to mention himself) sound completely on point. Post-War Lester is the unbeatable master of melody, in my opinion a man who sang songs through his horn which are on par with Gershwin’s any day. In any scenario, at any tempo, in any key, on any head, he created melodies which are inevitable and beautiful. Lester rarely surprises me, which is an even larger testament to his ability. I have heard Post-War solos of his where he is on a tense note, just letting it hang for a while before it resolves. The piano player knows where it’s resolving to, the drummer knows when it’s resolving, I know where it’s resolving, but when it finally happens, it’s so beautiful that you don’t care at all when it happens. Even though the target in his melodic masterpiece was set beforehand, his soulful execution and compositional style is to me, the highest ideal.
Now the Tristano-ites don’t really like talking about the Post-War days, and some neo-traditionalists don’t seem to think that the Pre-War days even happened, which has me confused. Although Lester definitely went through some changes, his artistry in both periods to me can’t be cut from his history. In fact, what I like to do most is examine the foreshadowing of the new Lester in the old, and the shadows of the old Lester in the new.
One of the reasons why Lester had such a big effect on me(personally and aesthetically, because as I said, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to manipulate a melody like him) was because of two albums, the mid 50s sessions with John Lewis, and the Verve Classic with Oscar Peterson. On the recordings with John, he is definitely comfortable in his subtlety, although on tunes like “In a Little Spanish Town”, he shows a fire akin to his old days. On the Peterson tracks, it is even easier to see the spark of old in the tracks “Tea for Two” and “Indiana”.
However, my favourite thought about his career is what an amazing accomplishment his playing with Billie Holiday is. In the heat of his swinging, harmonically advanced, three beat figuring solo career, he was also the sweetest, most sensitive accompanist that the most celebrated(not to mention picky) singer at the time could find. Not only is Lester the most celebrated 30s soloist since Louis Armstrong, he is also the most revered accompanist since, well Louis Armstrong, I suppose(NEVER forget about those duets with Joe Oliver!).
In my last post, I basically bitched that pianists have it hard because they have to learn everyone’s role. Well, if you think about it, when Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane were at the peak of their solo careers, they both made records where they showed that they were also masterful accompanists. Their accompanying doesn’t necessarily reflect their playing, or even the way that they wanted to be comped for(if McCoy only copped Trane’s timing from the Johnny Hartman record, he would have been fired day one!), but they show a sensitivity that I feel most young horn players today lack. This is not true of all great musicians, but I find that a horn player truly knowing how to comp is the biggest rarity. While Coltrane retained his ballad style throughout his life, in the later years he still had that edge that made him the driving, influential soloist he had become. If you listen to Lester playing “Stardust”, however, all of his previous edge is gone. He has attained a new level of beauty, a new level of brilliance in his sadly ironic playing.
I could keep writing about Lester all night, and I think that I will continue this post tomorrow, specifically about Lester’s ballad playing and my battle to learn how the hell he created what he did.
“If you can’t hear the piano, you’re playing too loud!” -Stephen Enos