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Remembering Lester

Since the end of last week, when I wrote my piece on Lester Young, the extent of his enduring appeal has become apparent as various jazz musicians – players of all instruments – have shared their thoughts about this unique character and his enormously influential sound.

Over the next few days, I’ll be adding the memories and impressions of those who met him, who admired him and who were inspired by him, as well as their suggestions for required listening.

DICK HYMAN (piano, US): “When I was playing for Lester Young in Birdland in the 1950s, he amazed me one night by calling Lavender Blue – it was then on the hit parade. It was a really silly sort of song. Its full title was Lavender Blue Dilly-Dilly. It was the most foolish and un-hip thing and to hear Lester Young calling for it, I thought he was joking. But we played it and it worked fine – he knew better than I that the tune had that kind of potential. I would never have guessed it!

“We had a good working relationship, but I can’t say I knew him. Probably few people did. I recently introduced his recordings to a young musician who had never heard them, whom I thought was a little glib and unconcerned with where he was going in his lines. Lester always told a story when he played.

“My own favourite tracks would be any of the very earliest recordings he did with Basie – such as Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Lester Leaps In.”

JIM GALLOWAY (saxes, Canada):  “Lester is, of course, one of my all-time favourites and proof that less is more. It’s really difficult to home in on a favourite recording. Favourites in music and art aren’t fixed in stone and vary with one’s frame of mind, but the one that springs to mind today is the 1957 Newport Festival when he guested with the Basie band. On One O’Clock Jump he plays five wonderful choruses with the band swinging like no other band could. He could say so much with only a handful of notes – just as a Matisse drawing could with a few seemingly simple lines.

“I never did meet Lester, but travelled and played a lot with Buddy Tate who knew him well. He often said that Lester really didn’t want to go on living, but thought he would make it to 50. He almost did.”

JON-ERIK KELLSO (cornet, US):  “I love Lester in all his periods, and consider him one of my biggest musical influences, so it’s not easy for me to pick my favorite tracks. It changes day to day, week to week.

“That said, his Lester Young Trio sides with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are right up there for me. The chemistry between them is lovely, and Prez really sounds strong and comfy. This setting affords the opportunity for him to ‘stretch out’ and ‘tell his story’, as they say.

“I love his creative musical phrases, his pretty tone, his laid-back feel, his swinging beat, and his unorthodox approach (paving a new direction aside from the Hawk disciples, his way of finding the road less traveled, unusual phrase endings and song endings). Plus, he was simply one of the coolest people ever (hell, I think he actually invented “cool” as an expression as we know it!).”

ALAN BARNES (saxes, UK): “I love Lester Young. In fact, I named my record label, Woodville, after his birthplace. Why? Because he wasn’t just a great musician: he seemed to have an ‘other-wordly’ quality – which has a magic beyond definition and can’t be analysed- and because he changed the music forever. It wouldn’t be how it is without him.”

SCOTT HAMILTON (tenor sax, US): “Pres was the first tenor sax player I really loved and it’s hard to narrow my favorites down to a few but these ones are my perennial favorites since childhood: Back To The Land (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946), Up ‘N Adam (with Hank Jones, Ray Brown & Buddy Rich, 1950), I Can’t Get Started (from Jazz At the Philharmonic, 1946), You Can Depend On Me (with Basie small group, 1939), and Sometimes I’m Happy ( with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, 1943) is a little masterpiece. ”

ALAN BARNES: “My very favourite Lester Young track would be Somebody Loves Me with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946. The pianist fits with him superbly and it’s Lester at his relaxed and inventive best. He was a total original and worked at right angles to the more obviously ‘virtuosic’ sax players. “
BOBBY WELLINS (tenor sax, UK): ” I went to New York with Vic Lewis in 1950. I was 21, and was just too excited to take everything in. I used to eat just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish that I loved – for $2. It was a hotel where a lot of showbiz people – musicians and people on the road – stayed. I suddenly saw this person standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young!’. I couldn’t help myself – being young and foolish, I shot out across the road and shouted: ‘Lester!’.

“I told him that I was over with a British band. He had a high-pitched voice, and he said: ‘Oh yes, I heard you were over with Vic Lewis.’ It was so sad. He had this old dirty raincoat, and there were rumours that he was drinking a lot. I asked if I could buy him a drink, and he said [Wellins sounds like a female impersonator as he mimics Young’s voice]: ‘That’s very nice of you.’

” So we went in and sat down and, of course, as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator, they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me, and I’d see this look of disbelief on their faces, and they’d come over and I’d introduce them.

“We sat there for so long. We talked about everything -current affairs, New York. I told him I was too excited to take it all in. ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He had on his pork-pie hat – he never took it off. That’s what I saw first. I saw the hat, then the tall figure. He didn’t have his saxophone. The next week he was doing a recording, and he invited me along but we were flying back to Britain.

“Most of the people I idolised were the offspring of Lester’s influence, like Stan Getz. I never even asked him [Wellins sounds rueful as he says this] what mouthpiece he used. In retrospect, he was a bit bedraggled.

“People forget about how Lester played earlier in his career. They don’t listen to his solos in the Basie band when he was absolutely tearing around but in that lovely way he had of doing things.”

ALAN BARNES: “I know Bobby Wellins and Duncan Lamont met him in the early 1950’s on an American tour. Lester got quite a crowd of British musicians around him in the hotel foyer, happily accepting drinks, and made a comment about going upstairs to get ‘he loaves and fishes’ – whatever that means.

“There are plenty of stories about Lester in Dave Gelly’s book – as well as some great insights. He suggests that Lester’s erratic later work – sometimes struggling to get the sound, sometimes brilliant – may have had something to do with the state of his horn. Also, in a book called A Lester Young Reader there’s a lovely essay by Bobby Scott who, as a very young man, spent time with Prez on a Jazz At The Phil tour. They were drawn to each other because they were both outsiders: one for reasons of youth; the other because of not fitting in.

“Lester was quite a character. He hated anyone crippled being on the same flight as him – he felt that the chances of crashing were greater if they were on board – and referred to them as “Johnny Deathbeds”! However, he could be re-assured if a baby was amongst the passengers as he thought the almighty wouldn’t be mean enough …

“He also referred to Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC of Birdland, who required bribing to pronounce a name correctly, as “Half a Motherf***er” which is pretty good.”

SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON (broadcaster & writer, UK): “Anyone who loves Lester Young and Ben Webster understands the full joy, range and possibility of the tenor sax. They are the gods who define the instrument.”

WARREN VACHE (cornet, US): “Lester Young was one of the most influential musicians to have ever walked the planet. His approach to music was unique, deeply felt and profoundly important. He paid the price for this dedication and talent while he lived, working for small fees, constantly traveling, and suffering many personal disappointments and indignities. In short, he had a miserable time while he was with us and in return for our mistreatment of him and his kind left us some of the most uplifting recordings ever made to sustain us in our daily lives and inspire us to greater heights.

“To reduce his life’s work to ‘your favorite track’, is, in my thinking, to continue the indignity and mistreatment he suffered throughout his life. Lester Young’s music was a gift, the magnitude of which it is clear we don’t fully appreciate or understand even today 100 years after his birth.

“To really appreciate his genius, I suggest you play all of his music, all day long, and do yourself the favor of shutting up, not imposing your own opinions and values, and actually listening. Let the profundity impress upon you what it will. If you learn nothing more than: although Lester Young is dead, his music is certainly alive and well.”


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Five Star Reviews From Edinburgh & Nairn

It may have been a musician down (pianist John Bunch called off due to illness) and have a tenor sax star lost in transition (Scott Hamilton, whose first flight of the day from northern Norway to Oslo was cancelled), but the Nairn Jazz Festival still managed to pull a magic evening out of its hat on Thursday night. Everything went according to plan; in fact, it went better than could have been planned, because an extra piano materialised towards the end of the hitherto two-piano concert.
This summit meeting involved veteran American wizard Dick Hyman plus younger, German pianists Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky – in other words, the three pianists who had wowed Edinburgh audiences earlier in the week with their games of musical pianos. For their Nairn reunion, they were joined by the similarly nimble-fingered Rossano Sportiello – and the results were sensational.
Of course, the numbers which involved all four pianists were the most exciting – and the most fun to watch, as a certain amount of contorting and Marx Brothers-like horseplay took place as the musicians arranged sheet music so that two pianists could read it at a time, and arranged arms and torsos so that complex duets were feasible.
Among the highlights of the many different line-ups within this quartet was a beautifully delicate duet by Lhotzky and Sportiello on George Shearing’s Children’s Waltz, Hyman and Hopkins’s hard-swinging Opus 1/2, and Sportiello’s sublime solo version of Wonder Why, which was so romantic that the old couple next to me were moved to hold hands..
There’s no doubt about it: this year’s somewhat reduced Nairn International Jazz Festival would have been an altogether lesser affair had it not been for the contribution of American jazz star Dick Hyman. The veteran pianist is so versatile that he played an important part in preventing this year’s event from feeling like a diet version of the usual programme.
On Friday afternoon, Nairn audiences were treated to a history lesson from Hyman, whose acclaimed and epic CD Rom A Century of Jazz Piano is about to be released as a CD box set. His two-hour guided tour of the jazz hall of fame was an exercise in musical time travel: among the many greats he managed to squeeze into concert (which really demands a sequel) were Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans.
Just as an impersonator can drop different voices into a conversation so Hyman elegantly conjures up the spirits of his piano heroes, most thrillingly such early pioneers as the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, with whose eternally exciting Maple Leaf Rag he kicked off the afternoon, and stride giant James P Johnson whose Keep Off the Grass Hyman played at such speed that his hands were a cartoon-like blur.
On Saturday night, he was back for a staggeringly energetic festival finale with fellow octogenarian Bob Wilber (clarinet, saxes) – the highlights of which were the oldest numbers, Running Wild, Royal Garden Blues and CC Rider.
Wilber had arrived on Friday to play what turned out to be a superb concert with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton – who had finally arrived from northern Norway, more than 24 hours after he had set out. Red Bull energy drinks perhaps deserve some credit for his performance (what Wilber’s secret is remains to be seen – he’d been playing till 4am in France earlier that day), but the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience to the Nairn debut of this particular line-up (with the wonderful Rossano Sportiello on piano duties, joining resident bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Joe Ascione) no doubt helped power both stars.

DICK HYMAN PIANO LEGENDS, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 4th)

If Sunday night’s concert at The Hub is anything to go by, the secret to being a spry octogenarian is to play regular games of musical piano stools. American pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman may be 82 but that didn’t stop him from joining fellow ivory-ticklers Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins in a couple of rounds of stool-hopping as the three men worked their way round two grand pianos, while serving up rafters-raising versions of The Sheik of Araby and I Found A New Baby.
Those two thrilling numbers – played with great style as well as humour (the younger players’ mock territorialism over the keys, a bit of business involving who had the longest sheet music etc) were highlights of an exhilarating evening. But they weren’t the only highlights. On faster, stride numbers, a solo Hyman can sound like he’s playing with multiple hands, and his dynamic take on James P Johnson’s classic Carolina Shout was a terrific example of this.
Less flamboyant but equally impressive was his original piece, Thinking About Bix, which captured the beguiling peculiarities of the compositional style of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke as well as evoking his unique cornet playing.

Although Hyman was very much in charge of proceedings, his young cohorts – both first-timers at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – had plenty of opportunities to shine, notably their electrifying duet on Somebody Stole My Gal, and Lhotzky’s duet with Hyman on Harlem Strut.



Following his piano extravaganza of Sunday night, Dick Hyman returned to The Hub on Tuesday evening for a concert which showcased his equally prodigious talents as an arranger and a bandleader who can whip even the most ragtag bunch of star soloists into a tight, working unit. Some of the musicians on Tuesday night’s bill had quite possibly never met before, let alone played together before, which undoubtedly added to the excitement of the music – as well as underlining bandleading Hyman’s skills.
Mind you, with the likes of Alan Barnes (saxes and clarinet), Dave Green (bass) and John Allred (trombone) in his septet, Hyman had at his disposal some superb players, several of whom looked as if they were getting a real kick out of playing such rarely performed numbers as a thrilling Dooji Wooji (Hyman revealed that he’d once asked the bass player Milt Hinton was this meant, only to be told “Better you not know..”).
Alan Barnes must sometimes rue the fact that he’s so versatile because it often means that he does back-to-back shifts on the bandstand. Tuesday night was no exception, as his turn as a European All-Star followed fast on the heels of his first guest appearance with the Classic Jazz Orchestra. Their programme of Benny Carter music might have benefitted from an interval but it was a treat nevertheless to hear this top-class band dish up such cracking Carter numbers as Symphony in Riffs from the 1930s and Katy-Do from his Kansas City Suite. Barnes’s superb work on alto (on the latter tune especially) was the icing on the cake.

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Five star reviews

An awful lot of awfully good CDs have landed on my desk recently, and I’ve found myself giving one five-star review after another. A coincidence of CDs worthy of so many stars only happens once in a blue moon (ask Patrick Moore), so I thought it might be worth reproducing the reviews I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s Review section here:

Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz (Arbors Records ARCD 19363) Describing anyone who’s still alive as a legend is perhaps ill-advised, but this CD is so good that it’s easy to see why the record company got a bit carried away. Veteran pianist Johnny Varro and clarinettist Ken Peplowski make an ace team; it’s always a treat to hear the dynamic Peplowski in a small group setting, and on the 15 imaginatively chosen tracks here he’s to be found in duos, trios and full quartet (with drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Frank Tate). Download: Out of Nowhere, Love Locked Out


Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (Decca 6132732) The sultry yet fragile-voiced Madeleine Peyroux might be excused for her long absence since her last album by the fact that for this CD, she wrote all the songs. Ironically, the opener, Instead, has the catchy, old-timey flavour associated with the tracks on her breakthrough album, 2004’s Careless Love, but the majority of the 11 songs are intensely personal, astonishingly intimate-sounding ballads which highlight the range of influence on Peyroux’s music. It’s uneven, raw and, in a couple of spots, misjudged, but overall it’s as seductive as Peyroux’s previous releases. Download: River of Tears, To Love You All Over Again

(I actually gave the Peyroux album four stars when I first reviewed it, but have since upgraded it)


Marty Grosz: Hot Winds, The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records ARCD 19379) Opportunities to hear the great American rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz in Scotland have been disappointingly rare in recent years, so this new CD is a welcome treat. The 79-year-old is in his element, playing his own imaginative arrangements with a tight, swinging unit known as the Hot Winds – featuring regular Grosz cohorts Dan Block (clarinet), Scott Robinson (various horns) and Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax etc). In his witty notes, Grosz says he’s often asked what “hot jazz” is. Well, this CD is the definition. Download: Rent Party Blues, I Just Couldn’t Take It Baby


Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin’ the Voom Voom (Arbors Records ARCD 19382) For some CD-buyers, the bigger the band, the better the value – but this album is proof that the opposite is true: less is definitely more, especially when you have players of the calibre of the US trumpeter Duke Heitger and the German piano whiz Bernd Lhotzky. The 17 tracks on this CD are an tantalising blend of standards and lesser-heard numbers exhumed from the back catalogue of Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and several obscure composers; the ballads are particularly sublime, and highlight the fact that Heitger and Lhotzky are a perfect musical match. Download: Doin’ the Voom Voom, How Long Has This Been Going On


Ken Peplowski Meets Alan Barnes: Doodle Oodle (Woodville Records WVCD127) Anyone who heard them together at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival last year will know that the American clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, the British clarinettist and player of several types of sax, make a brilliant team. That they relish each other’s musical company is evident in concert because one always invites the other to be a special guest, and it shines through just as strongly on this terrific CD, the ideal blend of unexpected tunes; swinging, lyrical playing and good, old-fashioned fun. Download: In Love in Vain, Shady Side*

* The  original Johnny Hodges-Gerry Mulligan recording of this Hodges composition is my all-time favourite single track – so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a new version of it. However, Barnes and Peps’ version, with AB on alto and KP on tenor (rather than JH on alto and GM on baritone), stands up in its own right and actually complements the original. I know: I just played them back to back…



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