Lester Young

Pres: The Complete Savoy Recordings

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When this double-album set was first released, the "two-fer" fad in jazz and blues reissues was not exactly new, but a consensus on what to do with alternate takes had not been reached, if it ever has. Compact discs made the entire situation easier to deal with, as machines could be programmed to play the selections in any order, and the perception of monotony that lingers just under the surface of any alternate-takes collection could be avoided with the click of a button. Back in the vinyl days, the way this set was programmed would have been bad news for anyone who had problems listening to four takes of "Exercise in Swing" in a row -- although obviously, the thing for such a person to do would be avoid buying this collection entirely. All the versions of a given tune are presented right in a row, with an average of three different titles per side. The takes presented would all have been considered usable, so this is not a case of listening to out-of-tune versions or breakdowns. And in the end, this set is much more varied and interesting to listen to than it might appear from a glance at the track list. Hearing the difference in the solos from version to version would be the major draw for the typical jazz fan, and these recordings are totally satisfying from that perspective. Young is a master soloist who never fails to come up with a odd slant on the melody, usually after lulling the listener into a false sense of calm. He is heard with a selection of players that are at the very least pleasant and swinging. The arrangements and brevity of the tracks means things move along quickly; hearing one soloist who is a genius followed by another who simply plays well is part of the fun, as a pure spirit of jazz flows through all the participants. The 1944 tracks were originally issued under the name of Earl Warren and His Orchestra, but it is actually the Count Basie band in disguise. Due to contract hassles, Basie turned the piano bench over to Clyde Hart, and alto saxophonist and amusing vocalist Earl Warren assumed mock leadership. These tracks absolutely defy the idea that listening to different versions of the same songs is dull. For one thing, the charts are complicated, and it will probably take multiple listens until one even gets used to the melodies enough to become bored by them. It is also thrilling to hear this totally tight band whip through these arrangements and the sequences of quick, energized, and clever solos that follow. At the same session, Young cut some tunes with a smaller band that has an exquisitely polished sound. Pianist Johnny Guarnieri plays wonderfully, a bit of Basie here, a touch of Tatum there, a wash of Wilson to wrap it up. Drummer Cozy Cole is tasteful, while Young's masterful phrasing is well-balanced in a horn lineup of trumpet and clarinet. This takes us to side C, which perhaps should have been identified as the third side to avoid the mediocrity associated with a C grade. Because now Basie himself is on the scene in a small band grouping that is some of the best recorded work of all concerned. It is simple material, played without a touch of pomposity. Some of the titles are only done once, such as "Jump Lester Jump," which everyone must have agreed could not possibly have been improved upon. The tunes that are done twice provide a tremendous opportunity to compare happenings. Rhythm-section fanatics can follow the strumming of Freddie Green or the snare drum of Shadow Wilson, because this is all about details. What happens exactly, that makes one version of tune six seconds longer than another? In the case of "Ding Dong," two of the three versions are exactly the same length, to the second, while the third is only a single second longer. The final session jumps ahead to 1949 and presents Young in a combo with several youngsters that went on to greater jazz glory. Roy Haynes, in his early twenties at the time of these recordings, is as delightful as he is on his Alladin sessions with Young, while the bluesy touch of pianist Junior Mance is right up Young's alley. It is sad to say Mance never backed up anyone as good as this again -- but in a way, nobody did.

Track Listing

Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:55
2 3:11
3 3:03
4 2:56
5 2:57
6 3:00
7 2:50
8 2:58
9 3:00
10 2:47
11 3:08
12 3:21
13 4:15
14 3:01
15 3:20
16 3:26
17 3:20
18 2:52
19 2:54
20 3:15
21 2:44
22 2:47
23 2:41
24 2:24
25 2:24
26 2:25
27 2:32
28 2:21
29 2:22
30 2:36
blue highlight denotes track pick