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January/February 1998

Teddy Wilson
The Complete Verve Recordings Of The Teddy Wilson Trio
Mosaic Records

The 1930s were rife with jazz pianists of unprecedented and rarely surpassed originality, all the way from early stride masters James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith through Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie to the boogie woogie giants, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. But no one in those years scaled the heights of popularity among both jazz cognoscenti and the public at large as quickly as did Teddy Wilson. The first black jazzman to be featured with a white swing band, indeed the best and most widely exposed of them all, Teddy soared to a position of national recognition and acclaim during his tenure with Benny Goodman, his incomparably polished, lyrical, and swinging contributions to the trio and quartet recordings, concerts, and broadcast appearances, as well as his own solos and series of dates with Billie Holiday, continually adding to his longstanding reputation among musicians. Tellingly, despite the commercial failure of his own highly musical 1939-40 orchestra, upon disbanding he once again struck gold with an all-star swing sextet that he maintained successfully through 1944. Widely recorded as a sideman during the mid-'40s, Wilson appeared on many Keynote dates with Coleman Hawkins and even participated in Red Norvo's historic "Swing To Bop" session on Comet with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Slam Stewart, and J.C. Heard.

Apart from this singular association, though, Wilson never chose to embrace the "new music." For more than a decade a self-assured jazz stylist, he saw no reason to adapt to changing trends, even though some of his contemporaries-most notably Hawkins, Don Byas, Artie Shaw, Norvo and Goodman-were making various moves in that direction between the mid- and late '40s. Essentially a conservative, Wilson stuck to his guns throughout the remainder of his career, resisting influence from both the popularly supported styles of George Shearing, Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck as well as the more exciting, provocative avenues paved by Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and, later, Bill Evans. Even on the copious 1952 to 1957 recordings assembled here one will not hear so much as a single phrase borrowed from bop. But it is important to remember that Wilson's harmonizations of popular song material, while never avant garde, were always considered modern, at least within the framework of his times. Although not conceived as such, these recordings are almost a retrospective of prime, stylistically definitive Wilson, as pristine and undefiled as he was in the '30s and '40s, but with the added edge of superior, high fidelity sound quality and top-of-the-art rhythm sections.

Unlike Art Tatum, a playing buddy from his earlier years in Toledo, Wilson went on to accumulate extensive experience playing in big bands, the most well-known being those of Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, and Willie Bryant, but he was also an inveterate jammer. When Tatum left former McKinney's Cotton Pickers saxman Milt Senior's band, Wilson took his place, but the two of them would invariably meet after work for all-night sessions, where they undoubtedly picked up a lot from each other. Even prior to that mutually rewarding relationship, though, Wilson, like Tatum, had come under the sway of Earl Hines, whose 1928 recordings with Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone were all the rage among younger jazzmen. Starting with the Armstrong band, Wilson had recorded in orchestral settings as early as 1933, but it was not until his 1935 debut with the Goodman Trio that he emerged as a mature stylist in full flower. Though not as experimental or rhythmically daring as Hines, he learned much about swinging time and phrasing from the older man, while from Tatum he learned how to utilize his already polished classical technique to best effect in jazz improvisation. It is also possible that Tatum, Fats Waller's most advanced disciple, helped Wilson move on from the stride left hand to the walking tenths that ultimately became his trademark.

In this five-disc, 96-track boxed set, we hear Wilson in trio context on eleven sessions recorded between December 1952 and August 1957, the last of which is here presented for the first time. The first four sessions contain only four tunes each, with John Simmons and Buddy Rich on the first, Aaron Bell and Denzil Best on the second, and Arvell Shaw and J.C. Heard on the third and fourth, but the output per session rises considerably thereon from the fifth, with Milt Hinton and Sticks Evans, who, like the other drummers, remains on brushes throughout. Save for one forgettable pop tune-"Unforgettable"-and three Wilson originals, of which two are blues, all of the numbers are standards, the stock in trade of most jazzmen of Wilson's era. Good standards also characterize the more lengthy sixth and seventh sessions, with drummer Jo Jones and Milt Hinton and Gene Ramey, respectively. Wilson obviously knew what he wanted and wasted no studio time in getting down to business, for the eighth session produced no fewer than 24 tracks. The equally indefatigable rhythm team on this date consisted of Al Lucas and Jo Jones. In a minor departure from Mosaic's customary chronological sequencing, the final studio date, with Arvell Shaw and Roy Burnes, follows immediately after the previous marathon. But this liberty in programming is mandated by a higher purpose: to reserve the remaining two concert sets for a single disc. The first is from the well-known Newport Jazz Festival of July 1957, with Milt Hinton and Specs Powell, and on one tune guest star Gerry Mulligan, while the second, unissued 'til now, is a set from a festival staged in Strafford, Ontario, with Arvell Shaw and Swiss drummer Bert Dahlander.

As good as it is, this material can in no way substitute for the many classics Wilson recorded during the '30s and '40s, not only under his own and Billie's name but also with Goodman, Hawkins, Norvo and others. By the 1950s, Teddy was rather set in his ways, and, if he could no longer summon up the inspiration that had so thoroughly enriched his earlier playing, like many other skilled professionals, he could still present a convincing facsimile of spontaneous invention.

Originally published in January/February 1998
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