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May 2001

Johnny Hodges
The Complete Verve Johnny Hodges: Small Group Sessions '56-'61
Mosaic Records

This is the second set of Johnny Hodges Verve reissues on Mosaic, the first covering his 1951 to 1955 work when he was not playing with Duke Ellington. Hodges rejoined Ellington in 1956, however, and has a number of Duke's sidemen and ex-sidemen with him (as he had between 1951 and 1955, actually). They include trumpeters Clark Terry, Ray Nance and Shorty Baker, trombonists Lawrence Brown, Quentin Jackson and Booty Wood, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, tenorman Ben Webster, baritonist Harry Carney, pianist Billy Strayhorn, bassist Wendell Marshall and drummers Sam Woodyard and Sonny Greer. Non-Ellingtonians include trumpeter Roy Eldridge, trombonist Vic Dickenson, tenorman Jimmy Forrest, pianists Lou Levy, Russ Freeman and Jimmy Jones, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones. Not only is this a great assembly of talent, they're mostly in top form for Hodges. Though Eldridge, with excessive screaming, and Webster, with too much rasping, have played tastelessly on other dates, here they control themselves.

There are many wonderful moments on this six-CD collection. These are primarily blowing sessions, but they contain some fine original compositions, including Ellington's "Duke's in Bed," Strayhorn's "Ballade for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters" and "Three and Six" and Hamilton's "Central Park Sing," with its lovely harmony.

The soloists acquit themselves very well. Hodges, known for his singing ballad playing, doesn't disappoint in this area. The lyricism and intensity of his work on "Lotus Eaters" features swelling tones with fast vibrato that could knock down a wall, and he doesn't even open up all the way on it. Hodges shows that he can swing his tail off on "Second Klass." The altoist does a very conscientious job of resolving his ideas on the set, although sometimes his resolutions are predictable.

Webster makes notable contributions to a number of tracks. His early influences were Coleman Hawkins, from whom he got his full tone and heavy vibrato, and Benny Carter, who marked his rhythmic ideas. But Hodges had a big impact on Webster, too. Like Hodges, and unlike Hawkins, who frequently played complex arpeggios, Webster uses songlike phrases. He has beautifully formed and melodically substantial solos on "Blues-A-Plenty" and "Reeling and Rocking." Creating lovely solos was of paramount importance to him; he refused to be rushed on uptempo tunes. Actually Hodges may have been influences by Webster by the time these tracks were cut; he sounds similar to the tenorman when he uses the lower register and a breathy tone on "Satin Doll."

There's one unusual session here during which Hodges and Webster play with a relatively modern rhythm section including Levy, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Gus Johnson. On it Webster displays the rhythmic daring and imaginativeness that made him a precursor of bop.

Also heard often and to good advantage is Hamilton, a soloist with a style that has characteristics in common with Benny Goodman's and bop. Possibly because he's such a smooth, technically accomplished player who makes everything sound easy to perform, Hamilton hasn't gotten the praise he deserves. His graceful, inventive work on these tracks, however, indicates what a special artist he is. Eldridge, Terry, Nance and Baker provide swinging, controlled, full-bodied trumpet work. Lawrence Brown is heard frequently here. I wouldn't argue with anyone who called him a great trombonist, certainly he was far more technically skilled and polished than the vast majority of jazz trombonists in the late 1920s, when he began having an impact. And I like a lot of his work; I think his solo on Ellington's original version of "Main Stem" is a masterpiece. But his vibrato has sometimes seemed schmaltzy and during some solos his work is rhythmically corny. Unfortunately, he's not at his best on this set.

Then promising vibist Emil Richards appears on the last two sessions here. Although an Ellington setting would seem not to be the ideal context for him, he provides provocative work.

Note to collectors: The 1958 and '59 cuts with Harry Edison that appeared on the Ellington/Hodges albums Side by Side and Back to Back were not available to Mosaic and do not appear on this collection. On the other hand, a substantial amount of previously unreleased material from several sessions is on the set.

Originally published in May 2001
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