I don't know what it is about Teddy Wilson's piano playing, but the guy always makes me feel great. No matter the recording, his stride style never sounds plodding or frantic. It's robust—but steady, like a mildly excited heartbeat. And his technique, especially on standards, manages to be both quaint and hip.
Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s—when Wilson's stated goal was to make money playing anywhere and for anyone—he never sounded like he was selling out. In a 1971 interview with Les Tompkins, Wilson was blunt about his mission:
"My working scene today is just taking whatever bookings come up; I don’t turn anything down. I’m for sale; I’ll play with a hundred pieces or do a solo job. Bobby Hackett and I work with a quartet sometimes.
Within reasonable limits, a professional player should keep busy at music, even if it’s a commercial job that you don’t like. Fortunately, I am able to do a majority of pleasurable jobs, but I have done commercial jingles and stuff for radio and TV. They pay well and, since I have lots of responsibilities, children to support, I need to make money. If it’s enough money, I’ll play the North Pole."
In December 1968, Wilson wasn't at the top of the world but he was in rare form. He was in Copenhagen, ostensibly to record an album at Danish jazz producer Timme Rosenkrantz's nightclub. Arriving a week early, Wilson was able to squeeze in a Danish Radio performance with Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Bjarne Rostvold on drums and a recording date for the Swedish Metronome label with the same impeccable sidemen.
The Danish radio and Metronome dates are captured on a remastered CD from 2004 called The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson. (The album should not be confused with Noble Art of Teddy Wilson, a CD that was released in 2002 on the ASV Living Era label and features completely different material.)
Every track on the 2004 CD is Wilson at his very best. All 24 selections are standards ranging from Shiny Stockings and Imagination to Serenata and Autumn in New York. And each is a masterpiece in treatment and an exercise in how to perform a standard so that knowing audiences are delighted. Only Erroll Garner had that same ability on the piano, to make the familiar sound brand new. (Talk about grace, that's Garner, Mary Lou Williams and Wilson photographed in New York in 1958.)
In 1968, Wilson was a long way off from his final days. He died in 1986. On this recording in Denmark, you can hear Wilson channel the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s on every tune. Teddy's hands only got better and wiser with age.
JazzWax tracks: I'm delighted to report that The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson is available as a crisp-sounding remastered download at iTunes for $10. Given that there are 24 tracks, that works out to less than 50 cents a pop! Just be sure to download the $9.99 version. For some reason there's an $11.99 version on Wilson's first iTunes screen and a $9.99 version on the second. Both appear to feature identical playlists.
JazzWax video clip: For a taste of Teddy in 1966, go here and see Wilson with Bob Cranshaw on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. Despite the date listed in the write up under the clip, the footage is from the trio's "Royal Festival Hall" concert in London on November 26, 1966. Listen as Wilson brazenly double-times I've Got the World on a String toward the end before transitioning to Love—a great song pairing if there ever was one.