Were it not for the complete and total absence of Lester Young, this would, in fact, be a truly quintessential Teddy Wilson retrospective. The liner notes are informative and the diversity of material is impressive. Saxophonists include Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Hilton Jefferson, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Tab Smith, Gene Sedric, Rudy Powell, and even Wardell Gray. But where is Lester Young? This is a puzzling omission, given the crucial role Young played in the Teddy Wilson Orchestra and the work both men did with Billie Holiday's Orchestra in 1937, 1938, and 1940. Given the fact that each disc contains roughly one hour of music, there should have been plenty of room for Pres, who is conspicuously absent. It is the only flaw in an otherwise enjoyable compilation.
"Once Upon a Time," recorded in 1933 by an ensemble calling themselves the Chocolate Dandies, shows off Wilson's unique way of handling the piano as well as the warmth and charm of Max Kaminsky's trumpet. Wilson's piano solos are well-represented, beginning with "Somebody Loves Me" from 1934. There's more than a little evidence here of Wilson's influence on Art Tatum, or Tatum's influence on Wilson. (The obvious point is that they influenced each other.) Several tracks from 1937 illustrate how integral Teddy Wilson was to the evolution of swing. "Fine and Dandy" finds the Teddy Wilson Orchestra sporting an Ellingtonian front line of Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney. Most exciting for collectors is the inclusion of the legendary "Just a Mood," a blues in two parts starring Harry James, Red Norvo, and John Simmons. The Billie Holiday selections are lovely, but anyone familiar with this music will sorely miss the presence of Lester Young. "Liza," dating from 1939, showcases Wilson's accelerated piano technique in front of a rather large and loud band. Drummer J.C. Heard joins bassist Al Hall in rigorously supporting Wilson's lively improvisations during a pair of trio stomps from 1941. Wilson vocally introduces a delightful 1943 V-Disc quartet performance of "How High the Moon." Unfortunately, this appears to be the only included example of Wilson's remarkable collaborations with clarinetist Edmond Hall. As the turbulent decade of the 1940s unfolded, Wilson continued to challenge himself by sitting in with the very progressive Coleman Hawkins (the example from Hawk's Keynote catalog is a smoker), and leading a series of small ensembles in suitably modernized updates of the swing tradition. If Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, and Jonah Jones were the perfect choices earlier on, Charlie Shavers is about as advanced as a swing trumpeter could get in 1945 without emulating Dizzy Gillespie. Wilson's 1946 piano solo, "Cheek to Cheek," reveals harmonically advanced ideas, which are in step with the times. As if to emphasize the point, bop legend Wardell Gray appears on "Cookin' One Up," an aircheck from 1948. The leader on this track is Benny Goodman; his trios and quartets appear throughout this compilation, and the aircheck works well as the last word on Wilson's important work with Goodman. This is a wonderful bundle of exciting and endlessly rewarding jazz from a period with which many Americans are all too unfamiliar. Once again, the French have done an excellent job of reissuing our music. The question, however, remains: Why does Lester Young not appear on this important quintessential history of Teddy Wilson?