By Devon Wendell
The sound of Lester Young’s tenor saxophone is sheer ecstasy. “Pres” (as he was nicknamed by Billie Holiday) was one of the most important, original, and brilliant musicians in the history of jazz. There’s not much in life better that listening to “Pres” blowing that sweet and burning Kansas City swing in Count Basie’s Orchestra during the 1930s. Young played mostly in the upper or altissimo register of the tenor sax, creating a tender and intimate sound with a smooth and lush tone. His style influenced a countless number of players, including Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Buddy Tate, Hank Mobley, and many, many more.
Teddy Wilson was the quintessential master pianist of the swing era. In the late 1930s, Wilson made some stellar recordings with such jazz masters as Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Billie Holiday and of course, Lester Young. Wilson’s recordings with Holiday (or “Lady Day” as she was nicknamed) and “Pres” are some of the greatest ever made in the history of American music.
During the 1950s, Lester Young was suffering from poor health. The President of Verve records, Norman Granz, had signed Young to his label during this time. Although his chops weren’t always what they used to be, on the right day and time, Young could play better than he ever had in the past. January 13, 1956 was the right day and time and Young was surrounded by the right people. This was a reunion between not only Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, but also Young and bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Jo Jones, both of whom had played with Young during his tenure with Count Basie. The results were assembled into Pres And Teddy-The Lester Young-Teddy Wilson Quartet.
This album is a phenomenal labor of love. “All Of Me” and “Prisoner Of Love” are exquisite. Young’s tenor lines are much more economical than say Coleman Hawkins’. His sense of melody and slight vibrato can only be described as wonderfully decadent; the sound of bliss. Very few instrumentalists could reach that place like “Pres” did. Teddy Wilson cooks behind Young. ‘Louise” and “Love Me Or Leave Me” feature some of the most tasteful yet potent swing piano playing ever put on tape. Wilson had gotten even better with time. It sounds like Young and Wilson had been playing together all of their lives on this album and you add the master of swing drumming, “Papa” Jo Jones, plus Gene Ramey’s steady walking bass lines and you get music that is truly irresistible.
The rendition of Vernon Duke’s “Taking A Chance On Love” is an album highlight. Wilson’ stride style piano lays down the melody and “Pres” plays one of the most superbly lyrical solos that I’ve ever heard on any instrument. His phrasing brings to mind some the greatest singers of all time. I think of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday when I hear “Pres” sing his heart out through his horn on this standard.
I’ve heard many versions of George Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” but the one on this album brings tears of joy to my eyes. This is real jazz at its best. Just listen to Teddy Wilson’s spacing and Jo Jones’ subtle drumming as “Pres” caresses you heart and ears with each soulful nuance. This is the stuff that makes life wonderful.
“Press Returns” is a bonus track on the album. It’s a pure Kansas City blues. No one could make a blues swing like “Pres.” Every line played on his saxophone speaks volumes about where this incredible artist had been throughout his life. You can feel all of his joy and his pain and the band is right there with him.
Pres And Teddy-The Lester Young And Teddy Wilson Quartet is an essential classic recording of American art at its best. This is music that sums up an entire genre and takes the listener through the history of jazz with soul, love, and dedication.
One thought on “Doc Wendell’s Prescription for Swing: “Pres And Teddy-The Lester Young And Teddy Wilson Quartet” (Verve)”
Wonderful. I’m not a list maker by nature but, if I were, this album would be in my proverbial Top Ten and Pres would be (and is) a most favored musician. Like only the best (Balliiet, Francis Davis, et al) you have done that most difficult thing – successfully translating music into another medium. Doc, I always enjoy your IROM articles. Roger Crane, the Song Scout, another of Don’s contributors.