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Lester Young: In Washington, D.C. 1956, Volume Five

Late in his life, the president of the tenor saxophone sometimes dealt with the onslaughts of unsympathetic rhythm sections by retreating into a state that resembled catatonia without the excitement factor. His playing under those conditions led some observers to proclaim that one of the most inventive of all jazz musicians was now an empty shell. So sad, they said. There was plenty to be sad about in Young’s last few years, including his lonely death in 1959 at the age of 49, but a presumption that he could no longer play was mistaken. When his accompanists-particularly his drummers-gave him what he liked, he was capable of magnificence. What he liked was not the complications young beboppers often thrust upon him, but the simplicity of good harmony and good time. “No bombs, Pres,” he’d say, “just a little tinky-boom.”

1956 was a good year for Young. It was the year of The Jazz Giants (Verve 825 672-2), a spirited reunion with Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, and Roy Eldridge. It was the year he spent a happy week at Olivia’s Patio Lounge in Washington, D.C. with pianist Bill Potts’ trio. Potts, bassist Norman Williams and drummer Jim Lucht made Young comfortable, and he responded with the best tone, swing, and melodic inspiration of his final years. Trombonist Earl Swope sat in on a few pieces and was a congenial foil. Potts persuaded Young to let him tape the performances. Years later, Pablo issued four LPs of music recorded that December week, and brought them out again in the CD era. Now comes this unexpected trove, nearly three-quarters of an hour of previously unissued music. Oddly, “Oh, Lady Be Good,” a part of his history and his being, shows up on volume five for the first time. In it, he relies for a few bars on the stock devices he developed as a shield against clods. Then he relaxes and rides the rhythm with much of the effortless swing, incomparable tone, and harmonic daring he had used to liberate jazz soloing 20 years earlier.

The other pieces are different versions of tunes that appeared on volumes 1-4. They are from his standard repertoire of the day and include “Three Little Words,” “D.B. Blues,” “Pennies From Heaven” and “Up ‘n Adam.” Pres being Pres and conditions being right, they are full of freshness and good feeling. It’s a nice way to remember Lester Young, and it’s an achievement for Potts and his men and their tinky-boom.

Originally Published