Mosaic Records box sets tend to be for collectors and completists; Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942 is more like a primer on the jazz pianist once regarded as second only to Art Tatum. No, it doesn’t include the dates with Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday that made Wilson famous. It does, however, include Wilson-led sessions that feature Goodman, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton, not to mention Roy Eldridge, Red Norvo, Ella Fitzgerald and roughly half of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And it charts the prime of a now too-often-overlooked genius.
Consider: The set begins with Wilson’s first solo-piano recordings, unreleased until 1981. They find him doing impeccable Earl Hines impressions; “trumpet” right, tremolos and octaves permeate “Somebody Loves Me” and “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away).” From there, we get to hear Wilson work through Hines’ influence in seemingly real time. It’s a dim presence by October 1935’s “Rosetta.” By January 1936, on “I Feel Like a Feather in the Breeze” and “Breaking in a New Pair of Shoes,” he’s his own man, having pared himself down to a melodic core and exercising the relentless swinging—and restraint—that was such a revelation in the era of Hines, Tatum and the Harlem stride masters.
Once that sound is established, Classic Brunswick & Columbia Sessions becomes a glittering tour through all-star sessions and masterpieces. Sometimes both occur together, as on the majestic March 1937 “Fine and Dandy” with Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney. On “Coquette” four months later, Wilson all but disappears into Allan Reuss’ rhythm guitar line, only to emerge with a flawless one-chorus solo. A series of 1938 dates with Nan Wynn suggest that the singer may have been Wilson’s true musical soul mate, her sly but subtle voice meshing beautifully with his piano. He gently teases out the notes behind her on “Moments Like This,” matching her quiet suggestion, and provides exquisite underlining on “Now It Can Be Told” (which also features delicate tenor saxophone from Ben Webster).
The sides by Wilson’s 1939 big band—which lasted long enough for one session in January 1940—are less exciting. It’s a fine ensemble that never fails to swing, and Wilson’s lean virtuosity is always in the spotlight. Except for its pianist/leader, however, the band delivers little that wasn’t delivered just as competently by others that year, not least Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, who split house-band duties with Wilson at Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom. The piano solos alone are worth the inclusion, however, and the group does occasionally find gold: Rudy Powell’s growler of a clarinet solo on “Jumpin’ for Joy” is thrilling, while Ben Webster’s “71” and Wilson’s recording thereof both deserve a place in the big-band pantheon.
One of the most remarkable aspects of a 2018 Wilson collection is what it tells us about how much our own conceptions of music have changed. Compared with, say, Fats Waller, Wilson had a light touch. But he’s downright raucous next to the truly radical minimalism Count Basie would offer a few years later.
It’s Wilson’s ratio of melodic cleanness to swing that sets him apart. Mosaic includes a three-minute snippet of April 1941 studio conversation between Wilson and engineer Bill Savory, in which the pianist complains about the conventional slow tempo of “I Can’t Get Started”: “You lose that melody, that’s a good melody.” Sure enough, Wilson’s solo “I Can’t Get Started” has an extra pinch of oomph to put the tune over. His kind of phrasing is a dwindling art, and jazz fans of any era can learn something from it.
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