Rare (till now) Ben Webster
Bomojaz | South Central PA, USA | 11/17/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This excellent 2-CD set focuses on a period of Ben's career that hasn't gotten much attention: the early 1950s. It was not the best of times for him. The grand Ellington days were over (a second stint with the Duke ended late in 1949), the big bands were on the skids, bebop was in the air (but not in the hearts of most music fans), r&b jump bands were coming on strong. What was a mainstream saxophonist known for his big-toned tenor sound going to do?
This CD set offers a clue. He did take work with r&b bands, as the sides here with Johnny Otis show. Otis had a typical large r&b contingent, better than most musically, and Ben appeared on some dates in December 1951. Ben is featured on many of them, some with numerous alternate takes, and his playing is excellent. There are 3 takes of ONE O'CLOCK JUMP, all featuring Ben, and both sides of his well-known tone (mellow and gruff) are present. ONE NIGHTER BLUES is a slow, down-home blues, grounded in the Tiny Bradshaw T-99 riff, and Ben is brilliant on it, emotional but direct. The real highlight, though, of this Otis date are the 3 takes of STARDUST, all three of them masterpieces (and reminiscent of the supreme version Ben made with Duke in Fargo in 1940). All 3 takes are all Ben, and it's hard to pick a favorite: Ben knows this song inside-out and his warm lyricism permeates each performance. (Even the squeak in the cadenza of the master take takes little away from the performance.)
Ben's own Dec. 27, 1951, session is also here, again with many alternates. A young Maynard Ferguson is on this date, and he plays tastefully and well. So is Benny Carter (as), but you'd hardly know it; unfortunately he solos infrequently. On one number (KING'S RIFF), a MOP-MOP derivative, he steals the record. RANDLE'S ISLAND, a medium-up blues, comes in 3 takes, and so does the ballad OLD FOLKS, which is another spotlight for Ben's lyricism. This session was a noteworthy one in Webster's discography.
Other sessions in this set include a Jay McShann date, which has a couple of spots where Ben is featured: THE DUKE AND THE BRUTE, a Webster original (the Brute was his nickname) and REACH. There is also a date Ben made with Johnny Richards, with the up-tempo THE IRON HAT, with its complex development and good solo spots, a delight. There is also a Dinah Washington side, one with Marshall Royal, and, believe it or not, 2 sides with The Ravens (Webster has a gorgeous solo on the slow DON'T MENTION MY NAME).
Shortly after these sides were made, Ben began a long and productive assocoation with Norman Granz and the Verve family of labels. They have been well documented on CD reissues; it's great to have these less-known sides on CD now as well."