JazzTimes 10: Lester Young

Sixty years after his passing, we remember 10 of the President’s best recordings

3. The Kansas City Six: “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (The “Kansas City” Sessions, Commodore/GRP/Verve, 1997 [originally recorded Sept. 15, 1938])

Along with his splendid tenor solo, Pres plays clarinet on this tune’s opening theme and closing counterpoint. (It’s worth remembering that he grew up in New Orleans; that kind of polyphony was mother’s milk to him.) Drawn from the Basie band, this small-group session is a master class in relaxed swing, with Young’s tenor as the centerpiece. It’s a remarkable solo even for him. As “hollow” as his sound is sometimes called, here it leaves no room for disruption. Now that he’s got your attention, he pulls the harmony just slightly outside on his passing tones; behind him, guitarist Freddie Green at one point goes into a slide to catch it. The melodic structure is wonderful, unfailingly swinging and romantic. That Young then exchanges the sax for the clarinet to duel with Buck Clayton is the icing on the cake.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.