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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.

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