I'm not sure why tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson didn't record more often as a leader. I suspect the reason rests with his enormously busy sideman schedule. Johnson appeared on nearly 400 recording sessions over the course of his career. In addition, he was likely more comfortable as top man in a reed section than standing front and center blowing, given that he wasn't particularly distinct as a soloist, like Gene Ammons, Ben Webster or Lester Young.
One of Johnson's finest sessions as a leader is Let's Swing! for Prestige's Swingville label. Recorded in December 1960, Johnson was joined by Keg Johnson (tb), Tommy Flanagan (p), George Duvivier (b) and Charlie Persip (d). It's a mix of standards and blues that exhibits his tough, tender and cool sides.
Born in Dallas in 1910, Johnson was a tough tenor before the term was coined by jazz writers. Unlike most tenor saxophonists who came out of Texas, however, Johnson was on the same wave length as Young, with a linear approach to the horn. Johnson also had one of the sunniest personalities, making him a natural leader in bands.
As a result, Johnson often was the de facto boss in orchestras that were fronted by leaders who preferred to leave that task to him. He also was the one behind the scenes who kept everyone united and in sync with what was needed for a recording date or performance. This was particularly true when he was in Count Basie's band in the early 1960s.
Johnson performed the role of shadow leader in Earl Hines' band in 1942. In 1945, he joined Billy Eckstine's band and wrote arrangements. Between these two bands, Johnson appeared often on New York's 52nd St. with Dizzy Gillespie, jotting down many of the lines they played in unison. Gillespie then used those lines with Charlie Parker.
On this album, Johnson finally had an opportunity to show off, and the results are spectacular. His playing is firm, spirited and forceful, without being overbearing or heavy-handed. Particularly beautiful are Serenade in Blue, I Only Have Eyes for You, the blues Downtown Manhattan and Falling in Love With Love.
Johnson turns up on many superb small-group albums in the late 1950s and early '60s. My favorites include Ben Webster's Ben Webster & Associates (1959), Budd Johnson and the Four Brass Giants (1960) and French Cooking (1963). Budd Johnson died in 1984.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Budd Johnson's Let's Swing! remastered at Amazon.
JazzWax clip: Here's I Only Have Eyes for You from Let's Swing!...
And here's the mighty Serenade in Blue...