Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ben Webster's Tenor Sax Magic At Ronnie Scott's, 1964

Ben Webster is generally recognized as one of the major pioneers and stylists of the tenor saxophone, whose beefy, brawny, yet sensuous tone and attack gave him a signature, recognizable sound which influenced other tenor players such as Dexter Gordon (who named a son after Webster), Paul Gonsalves, and Harold Ashby. His breathy vibrato was adapted by Albert Ayler and, later, David Murray. He was a player of driving swing as well as a tender balladeer.

A combination of lesser jobs being available to swing era stylists in the early sixties and his reputation for a volatile personality led to less work stateside, and at the urging of friends like Milt Hinton, he took a boat and sailed to England where he was booked by Ronnie Scott at Scott's legendary club. No one knew at the time that Webster would never return to the United States. But in December, 1964, Webster began an engagement backed by a trio with the superb pianist Stan Tracey. The performances, his first in Europe, were recorded and have been issued by the European Storyville label, At Ronnie Scott 1964: The Punch.

Its a wonderful collection of performances as Tracey helps spur on Webster, who Scott introduces as one of the kings of the tenor sax. Opening is Blues in B Flat, a brisk, swinging rendition of a blues Webster first recorded for Emarcy as Randle's Island, displaying his strength as a blues player (not unexpected given his Kansas City background and his work with Jimmy Witherspoon amongst others). It is followed by two superb ballad performances. Stardust, which was a feature for Webster in the Ellington band and remained a central part of his repertoire (and the rendition here is typical for him) and is followed by Gone With the Wind, which he had recorded with Art Tatum, and here he displays the velvety tone he often brought to a ballad.

The liner notes make a deal out of his renditions of Charlie Parker's Confirmation (inexplicably credited to Dizzy Gillespie) and Gillespie's Night in Tunisia, two bebop classics. One shouldn't be surprised at how Webster strong Webster sounds here. Confirmation after all is one of Parker's original blues, and Webster was quite at home with the blues. Also heard is a spirited How High the Moon, which after all was the source of another Parker classic bebop number, Ornithology. There is a tendency to perhaps make the gulf between swing and bebop broader than it was, and the better swing musicians might not play in the bebop style, but they could certainly play convincingly in the style.

There are also other strong ballad performances on this including My Romance and a especially lovely Over the Rainbow. The album closes with a spirited Cottontail, with Tracey's spare accompaniment helping propel Webster, before taking his own thoughtful solo. This engagement at Ronnie Scott’s was the beginning of a fruitful time for Webster. 47 years later Webster's music from then still strongly resonates.

I purchased this CD.

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