The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Verve
ALBUM TITLE: Lester Young
PERFORMER: Lester Young (ts), with Roy Eldridge (t), Teddy Wilson, John Lewis (p), Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson (d), etc
CATALOGUE NO: 547 087-2

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Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are the four most important saxophonists in the history of jazz. Curiously, Young’s importance is often glossed over, his role as the quiet revolutionary as misunderstood today as during his lifetime.

Yes, he offered a radical alternative to Coleman Hawkins in the Thirties, but that role was so radical he actually anticipated the ‘modern’ conception of jazz in the mid-Thirties. While Hawkins approached chord changes vertically, Young skimmed over them horizontally, implying the chromatic harmonies of bebop. But more importantly, he moved away from the two- and four-bar phrases of the swing era with long, expansive lines of great structural unity, seemingly unhindered by the cadence points of the popular song.

Yet Young was also a sound revolutionary, the tone of his saxophone profoundly affecting the 1948 Woody Herman band, then the most popular big band in jazz, with a sax section dedicated to precepts of his style and, in the Fifties, the ethos of the West Coast ‘Cool Jazz’ movement owed much to Young’s dry, light sound.

By the time these Verve recordings were made, between 1946 and 1959, the ground was so thick with Young imitators he was almost buried by them, the ubiquity of his style perhaps the reason we take his presence in jazz for granted, yet this valuable chronological survey reminds us what a startlingly original and fresh player he was.

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The helpful booklet notes by Dave Gelly create the context in which these recordings should be treasured: Young was his own man, a true original, right up to his death just days after the last recording session documented by this important set. Stuart Nicholson