Ben Webster

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When tenor saxophonist Ben Webster left the U.S. to reside in Europe, it was for two reasons -- opportunity and respect. He was financially more able to make his mark there, as a living legend, in a position where many other African-American jazzmen would follow his lead. This eight-CD box set from the Storyville label documents many recordings he did for the company -- in live club settings, mostly in Denmark, but also England, Finland, Sweden, and Germany. There are studio dates from radio sessions; various small ensembles (primarily quartets); two full CDs of big bands in rehearsals or with completed finished product (one of the big-band CDs including strings); and collaborations with such notables as Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Dexter Gordon, and Clark Terry. Also included are a handful of stateside sessions before he moved, one rare recording of him playing stride piano, duets with bassist Milt Hinton, some drummerless trios, and previously unissued material. What you get is a potpourri of his works including swing standards, a little bop, blues, original jam tunes, and of course the ballads that identify him as a true master of the idiom. Generally, Webster still sounds pretty good, with his full tone and cool persona intact. The time line starts with short American studio recordings of 1959-1962 and East Coast dates in 1963-1964, moving to Ronnie Scott's club in London during 1964 and then to greater Northern Europe from 1965 until his death in Holland in 1973. The downside is that the collection is not programmed with much continuity or cohesion. Tracks leap from year to year with different bands, you don't really hear a progression of his style in Europe, and the club dates have Webster's tenor often "in the red," or distorted. You do hear his fluid technique and slightly extrapolated, witty melody lines, but not the cleanliness of his pure sound.

The best sessions, which unfortunately also display the less-than-optimal opportunity to hear Webster himself, are the live dates from the Café Monmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city where Webster resided (Amsterdam being the other), and one cut from the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland. Fellow expatriates pianist Kenny Drew and drummer Al Heath join with Webster and the great Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen to form the nucleus of as solid a jazz quartet as one can get. There are also nights where either Rune Carlsson or Alex Riel replace Heath. The brief collaborations with Gordon work extremely well, with Clayton (in Antwerp, 1967, on the fifth CD) not so much, and alongside Terry there's a bit of magic. Webster worked frequently with local piano-bass-drums combos, too -- British pianist Stan Tracey, Swedish pianist Lars Sjösten, and briefly Camille de Ceunynck being the most effective accompanists. Trumpeters Rolf Ericson and Arne Ryskog are also good foils for Webster. On the seventh CD, the stock chart collaboration with the Danish Radio Big Band provides the most refined and populist music, while the eighth CD with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra rehearsal sessions is ragged at best, producing only a scant few finished pieces with vocalist Matty Peters and Webster cutting up, but finalizing little polished music. Of the recordings done in the U.S., there are club sets in Providence, RI, in 1963 with the Mike Renzi Trio that have a raw edge production-wise, while the older studio masters or alternate takes of Webster's originals, the blues tune "Poutin'" and bopper "Randle's Island" (on the eighth CD) with a quartet featuring pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Mel Lewis, are complete, but in need of editing or redoing.

The third CD, with 11 tracks, sports the most spirited playing, at Ronnie Scott's with Tracey, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Jackie Dougan. They breeze through "Gone with the Wind," Charlie Parker's evergreen bop icon "Confirmation" (credited as written by Dizzy Gillespie, correctly identified in the liner notes), "Poutin'," the well-done "A Night in Tunisia," and "How High the Moon." The first CD has the Webster-Drew-Heath-Pedersen combo from 1968 playing effortlessly, while the third CD has them in the studio for "How High the Moon," while CD number four features the alternate drummers from 1965-1966, with marked sound improvement, doing great versions of "Pennies from Heaven," "In a Mellotone," and particularly a rousing version of "Sunday." There are recordings from Stampen in Stockholm with several different mixes of American and European rhythm sections, especially 1971 where Sjösten, bassist Red Mitchell, and drummer Fredrik Noren appear, with Ericson and Noren in a quintet from 1969 -- check out their take of "C Jam Blues." The sixth CD has these sides from Stampen as well as Ahus, the precious Clark Terry features including "Satin Doll" and the light blues stomp "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." The Ahus recordings with Wilson, Ryskog, and drummer Ed Thigpen are a bit unsure and tentative. True standout recordings are with Dexter Gordon on CDs five and seven doing Duke Ellington's music in the studio, or jamming at the Monmartre. There are four versions of "Perdido" in the box, the best with Gordon and pianist Thomas Clausen's trio in Flensbourg, Germany; another four of "Cotton Tail," one with big band and strings; three of "Our Love Is Here to Stay"; and several "The Theme" set closers, one at over five minutes. The worst recordings are with the Steen Vig band from 1966, muffled and distant, especially from the guest star/lead horn.

The accompanying booklet, with many photos and historical information, notes, and quotes, is priceless. It speaks of Webster's fear of flying and other quirks, his hobbies (there's a great photo of Webster shooting billiards), the abject reverence other musicians had for him, and his status as "the hidden king of jazz" in the later years of his life. While not essential or definitive, this box is certainly worth the price, as each CD has nearly 80 minutes of music, and is an item completist fans of Webster will surely want.

Track Listing - Disc 8

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 0:53
2 6:03
3 0:48
4 2:17
5 1:45
6 0:24
7 1:02
8 7:04
9 2:08
10 4:41
11 4:10
12 3:51
13 0:20
14 7:44
15 0:54
16 1:18
17 1:52
18 4:01
19 2:40
20 5:11
21 4:25
22 4:25
23 2:44
24 2:19
25 4:03
blue highlight denotes track pick