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Lester Young: The Complete Studio Sessions on Verve

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Lester Young never recaptured the imaginative genius and powerful tenor saxophone swing of his early years with Count Basie, 1936 to 1940, when he did nothing less than change the notion of what a jazz solo could be. To dismiss Young’s subsequent work, however, is to ignore moments when he produced music that falls short of his peak but whose beauty and individuality transcend most jazz played during his career and most played since. These recordings show that when Young emerged from the creative shadows in his later years he was considerably more than an echo of himself. They also provide stark evidence of his deterioration.

Young’s finest moments of the 1946 trio session with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are extensions of the exuberance and inventiveness of his solos from the Basie days. They also compare favorably with the 1943 Keystone date that produced “Sometimes I’m Happy.” That is particularly true of his rollicking chorus on “I Want to Be Happy” and of “I’ve Found a New Baby,” with its levitating tenor breaks in the introduction. Even amid the uneven work he turned out in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Young was capable of buoyancy, harmonic subtlety and rhythmic independence that allowed him to make daring leaps across multiple bar lines, trailing melodies of unbroken glory. That is the kind of playing with which he paved the way for Charlie Parker. There are appreciable remnants of it in the quartet recordings on which John Lewis is the pianist. “Three Little Words,” “Count Every Star” and “It All Depends on You” have such passages. “Undercover Girl Blues,” a masterpiece, has nothing but.

Young is also near the top of his latter-day game with “Ad Lib Blues” and “These Foolish Things” in his 1952 session with Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard. After that, there is increasing evidence of physical degeneration brought on by too little food, too much gin and too much smoking. An ineffable sadness begins to suffuse his music. Even so, Young found ways to compensate for flagging breath control and inconsistent tone. In the celebrated The Jazz Giants ’56 date, his rescue techniques were sometimes enough. He manages a convincing facsimile of his former vigor on “Gigantic Blues” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Although his days of sailing across bar lines were over, there is further evidence that he was far from a burnt-out case. The five volumes of Lester Young in Washington DC, 1956 on the Pablo label-not a part of the Verve set-find him coherent, even happy. More often in his last three years, Young’s playing was the sound of a man coming apart. Anyone familiar with the path of his life is bound to be moved by the 1958 Laughing to Keep From Crying and Going for Myself dates. Young’s return to the clarinet is painful, yet his “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a gorgeous melodic reconstruction. His tenor playing is reduced to shards of his style, but his attempt at a heroic entry and the devastating playing that follows on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” make one of his most moving recorded solos.

In Paris, at his final recording session in March 1959, Young could barely articulate musical thought. Once a marvel of weightlessness and exhilaration, his sound had worn down, coarsened and darkened. It was a channel for sadness and disappointment. His phrasing was shot. Attempts at lightheartedness in his solos punctuated the gloom but did not dispel it. All that survived was dignity and the faint suggestion of swing. Somehow, he marshaled enough strength to get back to New York. Two weeks later he was dead.

Like the packaging of many of Verve’s special productions, the Young box is interesting and unorthodox. The discs and booklet are bound into an album of simulated wood with an accordion arrangement allowing easy pullout and examination, once you get the hang of it. John Chilton’s history of Young and Dave Gelly’s analytical essay are helpful and printed in a type size big enough to read. The booklet reprints in color the original Mercury, Norgran, Clef and Verve LP covers, several David Stone Martin drawings and 45 photographs. It has short biographies of all the sidemen.

Why does anyone need to hear eight CDs that trace the decline and collapse of this great man? Perhaps no one does. And perhaps no one needs to read King Lear, see Death of a Salesman or listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Those who do will be enriched.