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September 2008

Lionel Hampton
The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941
Mosaic Records

RCA Victor’s formula was simple: put the exciting young vibraphonist, drummer and two-finger piano player Lionel Hampton in a studio with various combinations of his peers and see what happens. With a few exceptions, these were lightly organized jam sessions. Accordingly, the music varies in quality, but many of the 107 tracks represent the swing era at its artistic zenith. Hampton’s collaborators came from the bands of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Luis Russell, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Earl Hines, giving him the cream of the period’s soloists and rhythm players.

In most cases, the musicians played standard songs or devised pieces based on standards and the blues, but in a few instances Hampton ordered arrangements by Benny Carter, Budd Johnson and other writers. As Loren Schoenberg points out in his detailed, helpful notes, on one of those occasions in 1938 the leader “hits pay dirt.” Carter wrote for a band made up of Hampton, trumpeter Harry James, alto saxophonist Dave Matthews, tenor saxophonists Babe Russin and Herschel Evans, with Carter himself on alto saxophone and clarinet. The rhythm section was pianist Billy Kyle, bassist John Kirby and drummer Jo Jones. The session introduced “I’m in the Mood for Swing,” one of the greatest small-band recordings of any era, the solos integrating perfectly with Carter’s writing. His saxophone scoring in the piece is velvet over spring steel. The interracial makeup of this group and others in the set was, in part, a legacy from Hampton’s boss Benny Goodman, a pioneer in racial color blindness when he hired Teddy Wilson in 1935 and Hampton in 1936.

Often on autopilot and in full bombast, Hampton was always propulsive. When he was in the mood and in the right company, he could also be lyrical and sensitive with dynamics and harmonies. He was in the right company late in 1939 in a session with Carter on trumpet, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, clarinetist Edmond Hall and a stimulating rhythm section of pianist Joe Sullivan, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Zutty Singleton. Hampton is particularly effective in “Dinah,” but Hawkins steals the date with the magnificence of his playing on that tune, “My Buddy” and “Singin’ the Blues.” An earlier 1939 session had Carter, Hawkins, Chu Berry and Ben Webster as the dream sax section, with young Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Charlie Christian, guitar; and Cozy Cole, drums. The sax ensemble is thrilling, the emerging bebopper Gillespie superb in his “Hot Mallets” solo, the rhythm section tight. The track times were short even by the standards of the 78-rpm era, throwing away opportunities for that remarkable saxophone ensemble, but it was a classic encounter.

Early in Hampton’s career, it was his drumming that endeared him to Louis Armstrong. There are several instances in the Mosaic box of his ability to swing a band on drums, and several disclosing the vigor of his rudimentary piano playing. Through most of the set, though, piano is left to its masters, among them Hart, Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Marlowe Morris, Sir Charles Thompson and—on two 1940 dates—Nat “King” Cole. With Cole’s trio and drummer Al Spieldock, Hampton performs some of his most subtle and beautiful vibes work of the period, backed by the advanced harmonic sophistication of Cole’s accompaniment. He takes over the drums for a manic solo on the celebrated “Jack the Bellboy.” Spieldock’s wife, Helen Forrest, sings on two tracks with an intimacy rare in her work with big bands.

Among the sidemen on the Victor dates was Johnny Hodges, whose playing on “Sunny Side of the Street” made it a hit for Hampton. Other Ellingtonians were Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Cootie Williams and Sonny Greer. From the Goodman band came Stacy, James, Ziggy Elman, Gene Krupa, Alan Reuss, Vido Musso and Jerry Jerome. Others on the Hampton sessions included Budd Johnson, Jonah Jones, Toots Mondello, Henry “Red” Allen, Omer Simeon, Marshall Royal and barely remembered players like the remarkable violinist Ray Perry and trumpeter Karl George. Some combinations in the Hampton box are more inspired than others, but the batting average is high. As a survey of the state of jazz in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and as stimulating listening, this is an essential set.

Originally published in September 2008
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