Notes and Transcriptions Around Lester Young's 109th Birthday

Yesterday was the 109th anniversary of Lester Young's birth in Woodville, Mississippi. I had meant to publish some thoughts on Young as I did last year around this time, but, alas, I'm a day late. I'd spent a large portion of 2017 learning Pres solos from '36 through '41, focusing primarily on his solos with Count Basie, but most of the solos I picked off those records I never got around to sharing.

Here are some of my favorites from the first five years of his recording career, as well as some brief thoughts. Happy birthday, Pres!

Solos

Oh, Lady Be Good! (alternate take) (November 8, 1936)

So much has already been written and said about Young's recording debut in late '36, which took place in Chicago a month before arriving in New York City. Of course, the master take is the one that everybody (Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, et al.) learned by heart, but the alternate take, discovered and issued a half century afterward, also possesses the originary spark shared in these earliest recorded improvisations. 

In learning the alternate takes from this first session, it's hard not to notice the extent to which Young does in fact improvise distinct solos. There's inevitably some overlapping of melodic material and phrases in certain parts of the song form, but the beginning, middle, and end follow from the trajectory of his playing in the moment; compared to other early jazz recordings from Louis Armstrong and others where it's clear that the solo on alternate takes has been worked out ahead of time, Young's going for it on each take here (try comparing the two takes of "Shoeshine Boy"). The pleasing, balanced contours of his melodic lines here is especially apparent, as in the end of the second chorus bridge, with his favored augmented dominant wrapping it all up.



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—Exactly Like You (March 26, 1937) 

As Loren Schoenberg points out in the liner notes to the Mosaic set of 1936-47 Basie and Young studio recordings, this iconic 16-bar solo begins with Young's trademark phrase on "Lester Leaps In." He sounds closer to the mic here than a week earlier, leaning into more of the honking tenor style given the surrounding backgrounds, and his largely diatonic approach is front and center (i.e. no G# on the E7 or II dominant, as probably I and most other schooled jazz improvisers might spell out under the same circumstances. Playing this solo alone, you might just guess the whole thing was in D major, which indeed it is, although it's more like Young bearing the tonic against the ongoing stream of harmony around him).

I'm not sure how much the band had been playing this arrangement before recording it, and there aren't any extant prior air-checks of this as far as I know, but there's particularly swinging about this solo that drew me to it in the first place. I didn't know why, exactly, but after playing it for a while, I think it has to do with how Young's phrases and rhythmic punctuations intersect and generate lift from the brass backgrounds; I juxtaposed his solo's rhythms with those of the brass backgrounds, and there's a conversational and at times hocketed quality to the two voices. In contrast to the strong up-beat orientation of the brass figures, Young is content to anchor his solo with down-beat oriented phrases, and the overall effect makes both him and the band seem to swing harder through their rhythmic counterpoint. 

If the band had indeed played this arrangement multiple times before or at least rehearsed it a fair amount, I imagine that Young must have been sensitive to the syncopated contours of the brass behind him and constructed his solo to take advantage of those backgrounds. Considering the relative fixity of his solos in a big band context compared to his more adventurous approach with a small ensemble, aside from the time constraints in each context, I'd venture that Young's solos with the big band were more fixed partially because he'd gradually developed a solo optimized for the rhythmic organization of the backgrounds (e.g. the opening false-fingered phrase on "One O'Clock Jump"). This kind of sensitive, inter-relational listening is also what served him so well playing the obliggato to Billie Holiday and other singers—figuring out exactly how to anticipate and weave enchanting counter-lines with other melodic instruments (which also harkens to his roots in New Orleans' polyphonic musical style, of course).
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Solo Rhythms with Horn Background Rhythms:



—One O'Clock Jump (May 28, 1938)

Originally titled "Blue Balls" before becoming a hit in 1937 and replacing "Moten Swing" as the band's theme, Young gets an extra chorus on this air-check from the recently released Savory collection. He defers his famous line for the second chorus, with the first chorus another demonstration of riding the sound of the tonic with the band moving through blues harmony around him; the first notes of the first chorus are major 6th and major 7th, which, along with the major 9th, are his patented Presidential calling cards. 


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—I Know That You Know (November 16, 1938)

On this as-yet commercially unreleased jam session from 1938, Young takes one of his fastest solos on record, which Sonny Rollins would later turn into a burning, stop-time tenor showcase two decades later. The high quality of the audio, recorded by Bill Savory from the Martin Block Make Believe Ballroom program, highlights the lightness and brightness of Young's sound two years after his initial recording debut: a focused, sweet, but still penetrating timbre that communicates pitch information with more clarity than the gruffer, more mid- and low-partial heavy timbres of his peers. At this speed, Young characteristically takes the opportunity to relax even more, playing a few half-time melody lines and making greater use of his stylized turns and repeated, variously articulated notes. With those devices, he shifts attention to syncopation as his mode of expression; Bird would do the same at these tempos while also increasing the density of chromatic information in his lines. 



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—Taxi War Dance (alternate take) (March 19, 1939)

Another alternate take and in the same key as "Oh, Lady Be Good!," this again isn't the take that all the greats learned, but it's a masterful demonstration of Young's dexterity with accents and articulation, beginning with a punchy phrase that transitions into the longer lines that he's more famous for. The shifting of accents during the bridge in the second half of each four-bar phrase is the kind of rhythmic sleight-of-hand that's eternally irresistible in revisiting this music. Continuing the trend from '38, his sound is lighter and more rounded than before, becoming increasingly transparent and peaking in '40 and '41 before transitioning into his grittier, less ethereal post-war sound. As a footnote, this recording takes place only a few months after the passing of Young's close colleague Herschel Evans, which coincides with a more rapid transformation in his sound over the next year or so. 

I didn't include this on the transcription, but Young's final break at the end of the alternate take also took me by surprise: a descending F# minor scale, which seemingly ends in a mistake, but still works by virtue of its melodic shape.

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—Twelfth Street Rag (April 5, 1939)

This was one of the first Pres solos that I learned, and it's still one of my overall favorites for sound and style at a quicker tempo. Schoenberg describes the opening phrase as a paraphrase of "one of Basie's famous right-hand figures," which I hadn't initially heard as a reference. It's interesting that upon this modulation to Eb for Young's solo, he chooses to start with a repetition of the tonic (the repeated-note approach to ring in a new key is also heard on "One O'Clock Jump," for what it's worth), which firmly plants him into the new key and gives the listener a moment before he plunges into his improvisation. 

As with the recordings of the previous year, Young's seems to become ever lighter, with more air and refinement than before and a delicate precision to his articulation at this brisk tempo. The characteristic elements of his early style are all in place: sweeping gestures up and down the horn, emphatic moments of false-fingering and note repetition, and that floating timbre.



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—Bugle Call Rag (February 28, 1940)

Another new addition to the body of recorded work courtesy of the Savory collection, "Bugle Call Rag," recorded toward the beginning of a month-long residency at the Southland Restaurant in Boston, features two remarkable breaks by Young at the top of each chorus. It sounds like the recording is peaking, likely with Young close to the mic, and it's striking to hear him without the distance from the mic that a studio big band recording would have required—in particular, the raw intensity of his playing up-close and the complexity of his syncopated chromatic break in the second chorus.

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—Broadway (November 19, 1940)

One of the last recordings that Young made with Basie during his tenure with the band, "Broadway" is in the same key as his solo on "One O'Clock Jump," but the change in his sound from the '37 recording is vastly apparent, both in his playing and in the superior quality of the Columbia recording itself compared to the earlier Decca recordings. Schoenberg puts it best:

"...if there is one Young solo with Basie that encapsulates all he brought to the band, this might very well be it. The relaxed stance, the sheer elegance of the melodies, the velvet tone and flowing rhythm all unite in an ascending and descending arc that reveals Young to be as much a master of the line as Matisse."

This also happens to be in the same key as one of his first recorded solos with the band, "Honeysuckle Rose" from January 1937 (alternate take transcribed here), and although many of the phrases draw from the same material, the overall feel and sound have clearly eased into the mature, relaxed phrasing that would be massively influential in the years to come.


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—Beautiful Eyes (March 10, 1941)

This session, which is the only studio document of Young's working band during the period immediately after his departure from Basie, finds him supporting vocalist Una Mae Carlisle on a series of songs with not the greatest lyrics in the American songbook. Despite this, Young provides sublime counterpoint to the vocals and commits to record the furthest extreme of his timbral development over the past five years with the Basie band: diaphanous and like "velvet," as described by composer Mel Powell via Schoenberg, Young's tone is hollowed out and bares more silhouette than body, bringing to mind Stan Getz ca. his recording with the Oscar Peterson Trio recording in '57 as well as early Warne Marsh. After this period, when Young moves on from his pre-war New Wonder II Conn saxophone and large chamber Otto Link mouthpiece to a heavier Conn 10M and smaller chamber Brilhart Ebolin mouthpiece and after he's been through the detention barracks, his sound never regains the delicacy of these earliest recordings. 

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Pres & Bird — Blue Note Beijing Jazz Orchestra Concert, August 2018, celebrating Lester Young and Charlie Parker

Over the past weekend, I led the Blue Note Beijing Jazz Orchestra in a program of big band works for the occasion of Lester Young and Charlie Parker's birthdays. I had the chance to realize my dream of playing the arrangement of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" that Pres guested on in a reunion of sorts with Basie during the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Schoenberg contends that this was Young's last stand, and I agree that it's one of (if not the) greatest documents of his late period. 

Over the past half year, I've taken a break from my intensive study of Young's music to work on original music and spend some time with relatively more modern saxophone styles, but I would like eventually to study and learn Young's improvised counterpoint with Billie Holiday and other vocalists, and I'd also like to lift some of his clarinet solos and learn them on clarinet. The music's not going anywhere, but given the rate of my blogging these days, perhaps I'll have an update sometime around this part of the calendar in 2019.

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