Big Ben

The way I remember things is that my friend Emiliano introduced me to Ben Webster, and I fell in love with his music. Then I introduced Emiliano to Lester Young, and he fell in love with his. The consensus that then developed between us was that Lester Young was the true master. If Ben Wester is Kurosawa, then Lester Young is Ozu.

Now, Pres and Big Ben are the two undisputed greats on the tenor in most jazz buff’s books. And it’s true that, like Ozu, Pres has a peerless sense of timing, understatement, great-complexity-in-simplicity, and most of all just a deeply affecting sound: you feel some soul-essence shimmering right behind the notes of his best solos. But I’m swinging back to Ben Webster right now. In part, because of having stumbled on this world-class solo, recorded with a small group led by James P. Johnson on piano.

Webster’s expressive resources are bigger than any other jazz soloist’s as far as I can tell. There’s a feeling of a volatile anger that’s been overmastered in his playing, which I think explains why the poet Hayden Carruth once said that Ben Webster was the greatest African-American artist of all time in any form. That feeling of transcended rage is what makes his ballads the most tender ever recorded. But he has any number of other emotional registers; and he can often access several in a single bar. I still think Whitney Balliet’s description is on the money: “In a slow ballad number, Webster’s tone is soft and enormous, and he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore. . . Webster employs long, serene figures that often (particularly in the blues, which he approaches much as he might a ballad) achieve a fluttering, keening quality – his wide vibrato frequently dissolves into echoing, ghost-like breaths. . . In fast tempos a curious thing frequently happens. He will play one clean, rolling chorus and then – whether from uneasiness, excitement, or an attempt to express the inexpressible – adopt a sharp, growling tone that, used sparingly, can be extremely effective . . .”

He’s Duke Ellington’s greatest soloist, and they both share that immense range and depth. I recently came on this video of the two playing together at the end of their lives (both were to die just a couple years later). It’s not the greatest recording of “I’ve Got It Bad” by any means (Duke’s first recording is hard to beat; I’m also partial to Nina Simone’s, one of her first recordings); but it may be the most touching. The Duke and Ben both know the melody as deep as a melody can be known; they take liberties and somehow remain very faithful, like any old friendship in conversation. There are a few recordings that capture the spirit of friendship. The greatest of all is Sidney Bechet and Charlie Shaver’s version of “Mood Indigo” – it seems Ellington lends himself to that spirit. But this is a pretty close second.

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