"Everyone, when he first started, thought: This man, his tone is too thin, you know? A tenor sax! Everybody thinks it has to be real big; and Lester used to go out of his mind to sound big, like Chu Berry (he was very popular in those days). And I told Lester, 'It doesn't matter because' I said, 'you have a beautiful tone and you watch. After a while everybody's going to be copying you.' And it came to be." —Billie Holiday in Nat Hentoff's Jazz Is (1976).
"If you were a hype [heroin addict], most record companies wouldn't have anything to do with you. But Norman [Granz] built his labels on junkies. In the bebop era it was hard to have a jazz label if you didn't deal with hypes. Norman had Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and most of the known users, including me." —Anita O'Day in High Times Hard Times (1981)
Lester Young was a vocalist's tenor saxophonist. All the great female singers loved his velvety tone and patient, emotional delivery. It's easy to hear why—especially during his 1950-52 Savoy and Verve period.
By the early 1950s, Young's solos no longer had the world by the tail. A series of painful events took the punch out of Prez. Instead, his tenor assumed a smokey, reflective resonance that reeked of sorrow, regret and resignation.
For this reason I think of Prez during the period and until his death in 1959 more as a vocalist than a saxophonist. No one except a great jazz or blues singer could crawl inside a song like Prez and shake it to its emotional core. Billie could do it. So could Anita.
So could Sinatra during his heartbreak period for Capitol in 1953-54 (I'm thinking here of his ballad work on My One and Only Love, Anytime, Anywhere, Half as Lovely, From Here to Eternity and It Worries Me). While Sinatra credited Billie Holiday as a major inspiration for his timing and swinging approach, you just know he also listened to a lot of Prez. All smart vocalists did, especially when they needed a refresher on how to feel and let go while singing.
Great jazz singers have a certain intimate, first-hand knowledge of the stories they are telling. So did Prez, who took everyday popular songs during this period and transformed them into new works of art. Producer Norman Granz knew in his gut the formula would work with Prez, and he was right, perhaps more so than with any other artist he recorded.
Sure, the songs' original writers and lyricists were a sentimental bunch and could turn a phrase. But only tender jazz vocalists—and Prez—could personalize a song and make you feel as if they not only lived the words but also wrote them.
If you don't own a Lester Young album—or even if you own them all—take a re-listen to Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded on November 28, of 1952 for Norman Granz's Norgran label (now Verve).
If you know nothing about jazz, this should be your first jazz album. If you know a lot about jazz, a fresh listen will remind you why Prez was so great during this period. Many critics have unfairly dismissed Prez's Verve years as too light and filmy compared with the swinging sewing-machine aggression of his Basie years. I view the two periods as work by two very different artists—Prez the swing giant (Basie) and Prez the saloon singer (Savoy and Verve).
A re-listen of Lester Young and the Oscar Peterson Trio should confirm what I'm saying here. Prez plays so pretty on the album. It's as if he's singing right through his horn, and in many ways he is. To fully appreciate the album, you have to think of it as Lester Young Sings with the Oscar Peterson Trio. His level of sensitivity was so high that it melts your heart, especially if you know the words to all of the songs played. Every track is great, but I defy you to put on There Will Never Be Another You and not feel something.
This track represents everything that jazz is. Prez is seductive, emotional and joyful. But most of all, he's climbing right through the speakers for your soul. Following the opener, in which he sends plenty of air through the mouthpiece, he jumps up the pace—but only a tad. The song remains a ballad.
Or listen to I Can't Get Started, with Barney Kessel's guitar chords forming a lush platform for Prez's melancholy tenor lines. Or listen to Peterson's Basie-esque backup to Prez's spirited runs on Ad Lib Blues. And dig that ending, where Prez decides he's said enough and Oscar must figure out how wind down the tune fast. Clever old Oscar.
This is an album of pure joy and sums up all that jazz is—blues, sentiment and story-telling Except on this album, you don't need the songs' words. If you have a heart, you already know them.
Wax tracks: Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio is available in many forms on CD—appearing under Young's and Peterson's names. Please do not download it or purchase individual tracks. You really must buy the CD. Just be sure that you purchase a version that has been remastered. An import is preferable. You need a copy so crisp that you can hear Prez's breathing and fingers working the pads.
Mixology: For fun, listen to Prez's There Will Never Be Another You. Then listen to Sinatra's Anytime, Anywhere (Capitol, May 1953). Then listen to Prez play the song again, followed by Sinatra's It Worries Me (Capitol, May 1954). Interesting, right?