Lester Young

Live at Birdland

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Live at Birdland Review

by Alex Henderson

One of the myths that has been promoted in jazz journalism goes like this: Lester Young was so traumatized by his experiences in the military during World War II that when he returned to civilian life, his chops were permanently destroyed. But the idea that the quality of Young's work declined so dramatically after WWII is simply nonsense. The Pres, in fact, frequently triumphed in the '50s and has many inspired moments on Live at Birdland, a 72-minute CD focusing on live radio broadcasts from New York City's famous Birdland -- one on January 15, 1953, the others on August 7 and August 15, 1956. Different groups are heard on different gigs; in 1953, Young is joined by trumpeter Jesse Drakes (who ESP Disk misidentifies as "Jesse Jakes" in the credits), pianist Horace Silver, bassist Franklin Skeete, and drummer Lee Abrams, while on August 7, 1956, his accompaniment includes trumpeter Don Ferrara, pianist Bill Triglia, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Gus Johnson (an unknown trumpeter replaces Ferrara on August 15, 1956). Young has many fine moments on this collection, excelling on both his uptempo "Lester Leaps In" and introspective ballad performances such as "These Foolish Things" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." The thing that makes Live at Birdland mildly inconsistent is not Young's playing, but rather the solos of a few of the sidemen. Silver and Drakes are in fine form, while the unknown trumpeter on August 15, 1956, is less than memorable. Also, the sound quality on this CD -- although certainly listenable -- is hardly state of the art (even by '50s mono standards). But Live at Birdland has more pluses than minuses and will easily appeal to Young's die-hard fans even though it isn't recommended to casual listeners.

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