Lightning In A Bottle (Part Two)

3.  Don Byas and Slam Stewart – June 9, 1945 – Town Hall

This one is truly incredible, a once-only, bravura performance of two up-tempo numbers by the unusual duet of tenor saxophone and bass.  Both these jazz masters were in towering form and thank goodness it was recorded.

The occasion was a concert put on by one Baron Timmie Rosencrantz, an eccentric and somewhat wealthy Danish emigré who was a writer and sometime salesman for the Commodore Music Shop.  He loved the music of 52nd Street and Harlem and decided to produce a concert at Town Hall featuring some of his favourite musicians – Red Norvo and his Orchestra, Teddy Wilson’s Quintet with Flip Phillips, the Gene Krupa-Charlie Vantura Trio, the Stuff Smith Trio, the Bill Coleman Quartet.  He booked the Byas-Stewart duo (not a regular working unit) mainly to provide relief when the various bands were tearing down or setting up.  Against all odds it turned out that this bare-bones pair would provide the best and most memorable music of the evening.

It’s one thing to put the string bass in a duo with piano or guitar, these instruments can play lines and chords, offering the music more fullness, a harmonic context and self-accompaniment.  But pairing the bass with another instrument capable of only single notes like the saxophone creates challenges and limitations for the musicians that are hard to overcome.  The music will succeed or fail based solely on how well the two play, with no safety net or margin for error.  The music goes well beyond succeeding here, it’s scintillating.

On the face of it though, there’s nothing particularly auspicious that would predict such a marvelous performance.  For one thing, the two songs played – “I got Rhythm” and “Indiana” – were both chestnuts that had been done to death.  For another, neither man does anything unusual or revolutionary in stepping outside the usual role of his instrument – as expected, Byas plays the melody of each tune and then solos, accompanied by Stewart’s walking bass, followed by a bass solo each time.  The magic here lies in how magnificently each of them plays, how they respond to the greater space and focus of the minimal duet with such intensity and invention.  There are no arrangements, no chords or comping, no backgrounds or drums.  It’s just pure swinging improvisation so compelling that at no time do you feel the absence of the ‘missing’ instruments.

Byas became a star after he took Lester Young’s place with Count Basie in 1940, but his playing was influenced mostly by Coleman Hawkins (especially Hawk’s virtuosity, aggression and vertical/harmonic approach to improvising) and Ben Webster (the breathier sound, blurred pitch and chromatic approach.)  But Byas was much faster and leaner on the horn than either of his models and though his big, robust sound came from the Swing Era, his sophisticated harmonic ideas (reflecting an absorption of pianist Art Tatum), pointed to bebop and the future.  By the time of this concert in 1945, Byas was at his peak, combining the greater romanticism of the earlier swing players with the experimental ideas of the boppers.

Both the numbers played are medium-fast, and each is a harmonic tour de force for Byas.  He just tears through the chord changes here like a shark in a feeding frenzy, to the point where I almost see blood when I listen to these tracks.  He uses all kinds of advanced ideas here – chromatic and tritone chord substitutions, extra passing tones and chords, bitonality, all delivered with his lion’s tone and great speed.  His playing here is so dense and complex it’s almost byzantine, but it’s also balanced.  The real marvel to me is his combination of such velocity and dexterity with such a huge sound – it’s easier to play fast and light with a thinner tone.

You can certainly hear how and why Byas was such an influence on later tenor players like Lucky Thompson, Paul Gonsalves, Lockjaw Davis and Benny Golson, each of whom in their own way adopted his rich sound and slithering harmonies.  I once had the revealing experience of hearing these tracks from a distance at a low volume level, which made Stewart’s bass almost inaudible.  Without hearing the pulse and notes from the bass, it sounded like Byas was playing avant-garde and free, like a forerunner of Archie Shepp or David Murray, which, come to think of it, he is.

As a bassist myself, I stand in awe of what Slam Stewart achieves here – I’ve heard the bass played maybe this well and differently for sure, but never any better.  Firstly, he accompanies Byas with all the momentum and drive of a full rhythm section – a big beat and sound, percussive slaps, long notes and flowing bass lines.  Then he has to follow the powerhouse tenor solos by soloing, accompanied by…nobody at all.  It doesn’t seem to faze him in the least, he dives right in with his patented delivery of bowing, while humming what he plays two octaves higher.

This sound can sometimes have a comic, bumble-bee effect, but there’s nothing funny about what Slam plays here, he means business.  His soloing here is amazingly fly and dexterous, he has as much speed and sound as Byas, but his approach is different.  He’s not as harmonically dense and doesn’t play as many notes, but arranges them in a more surprising and melodic way, with different phrase shapes and spaces.  He has a lot of Lester Young in him, and hearing his playing here made me realize fully for the first time what a great musician he was – you can’t play this well by accident.  Stewart has an arresting moment during his solo on “Indiana”.  It’s customary for musicians to play this tune in the key of F, then modulate toward the end to A-flat.  Slam makes this key change all by himself without any warning right in the middle of his solo and you can hear Byas laugh with surprise at it.

This duo performance is truly a high-wire act and serves as a reminder of how big a mistake it can be to pigeonhole players by style or period – brilliance is brilliance no matter when it happens – it’s also a potent demonstration of how limitless and varied the possibilities of improvisation can be in the right hands.



4.  Wardell Gray & Erroll Garner – April 29, 1947 –  Pasadena, CA.

This is a one-off meeting of these two jazz giants playing just a single tune, Edgar Sampson’s “Blue Lou”.  Its inclusion here is entirely personal as it’s one of my favourite jazz tracks ever, period.

The occasion was an All-Star concert at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, staged by Los Angeles impresario Gene Norman, who was similar to Norman Granz but with less ambition and ego.  He assembled quite a lineup including Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, Charlie Barnet, Howard McGhee, Kay Starr, Sonny Criss, Dodo Marmarosa along with Gray, Garner and a house rhythm section of Irving Ashby on guitar, Red Callender on bass and drummer Jackie Mills.  A recording of the whole concert probably exists, but I’ve never heard it.  The nine-minute version of “Blue Lou” is on two different Wardell Gray compilation CDs I have, so it’s likely considered among the highlight performances of his short but brilliant career.

Aside from the inspired blowing of both Gray and Garner and the superb rhythm section playing, part of the magic of this track has to do with the tune itself and the tempo it’s taken at.  “Blue Lou” is hardly ever played anymore, a shame because it’s a simple but interesting and roomy blowing tune.  It’s an AABA, 32-bar structure with slightly unusual chords.  In the key of A-flat, the first chord of each A section is an E7 for one bar, resolving to an Eb7, then these two bars repeat.  The last four bars of each A section are an “I Got Rhythm” cadence.  The bridge simply modulates to the key of E-flat and stays there for eight bars, affording the soloist a lot of space.  The tempo here is absolutely perfect, a right-down-Broadway medium tempo, a thinking man’s tempo and Gray and Garner certainly do some thinking here, without becoming overly intellectual.  Neither tries to superimpose anything complex on the song by way of chord substitutions or rhythmic structures, each simply digs into what the tune has to offer and takes a leisurely stroll around inside it.  There’s nothing frenzied about this outing, its overall feeling is one of unhurried relaxation and tremendous rhythmic unity; in short, it swings like mad.

Garner sets the whole thing up with a perfect solo intro in tempo, simply blowing on the tune’s first two chords for eight bars.  The rhythm section falls in beautifully with a smooth and buoyant Count Basie beat – light 4/4 guitar, walking bass with brushes and hi-hat from the drums – their cohesiveness is a joy throughout this track.  Gray enters and hints at the melody, but he’s already improvising in this first chorus, he’s clearly in an expansive, blowing mood.

It’s a very crowded field and it’s only my opinion, but at this very moment in time Wardell Gray was probably the best tenor saxophonist in jazz, or fast on his way there.  His playing was a perfect amalgam of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, without sounding derivative of either.  He had Young’s beautiful tone (with a slightly huskier edge) and his relaxed phrasing, coupled with Bird’s greater harmonic awareness and linearity.  Like both Pres and Bird, Gray’s playing was suffused with the blues and swung very deeply.  Even Benny Goodman, who wasn’t too keen on bebop but would hire Gray shortly after this, said of him,  “If he’s bebop, that’s great.  He’s wonderful.”  All of Gray’s virtues – his gorgeous sound, perfect time, his ability to effortlessly invent beautifully sculpted melodic lines of great logic – are showcased here, as he spins out five perfect choruses without repeating himself once, buoyed by the airborne rhythm section.

Garner, who had been busy stoking the beat with his own uniquely percussive comping, takes over the solo spotlight and what is there to say?  The tune and tempo are made for him and while he often played this well, I’ve never heard him sound better; he’s just brilliant, a joy in the truest sense of the word.  All the Garnerisms are here – the delightful, catch-up rhythmic tension between his lagging right hand and the beat, the jingle-jangle block chords, the tremolos, the rococo inventiveness – as he seems to grab handfuls of piano keys and bend them to his will.  You know eventually Garner will stop (as he does after five choruses) but you sure don’t want him to.

Gray returns, obviously inspired by Garner’s turn and takes four more great choruses before taking the tune out.  The only thing that might have improved this performance would have been if Gray and Garner had traded eights and/or fours before exiting – they might have struck some sparks off each other and the whole thing would have been better balanced, but it’s terrific anyway.  The first time I heard this track it snuck up on me gradually.  Within fifteen seconds, I couldn’t stop tapping my foot, after one minute I was dimly aware that something very special was taking place and by the three minute-mark I was perspiring heavily and swearing to myself that this was some of the greatest jazz I’d ever heard.

Oddly enough, there is a recorded rehearsal version of “Blue Lou” from earlier the same day, with the same group minus Ashby’s guitar.  It’s far less successful – among other things, the tempo is slower and not quite right, it features Garner more and without Ashby’s subtle 4/4 guitar, Mills plays heavier and sloppier on the drums, resulting in a flabbier time feel.  It’s an amazing demonstration of the difference between a rehearsal and the real thing, and of how a magical performance consists of many little things lining up in perfect tandem.  Not the least of which is a perfectly balanced and integrated rhythm section.  As Sweets Edison once said to me in trying to convince me of the importance of my role, “If I ain’t got a good rhythm section, I ain’t got nothin’ – I’m dead.”  Truer words…..

Wardell Gray’s career was tragically cut short by his mysterious death on May 25, 1955, aged just 34.  He was scheduled to appear with Benny Carter’s band that night at the opening of The Moulin Rouge Hotel in Las Vegas and unaccountably was a no-show.  The next day his naked body, with the neck broken, was discovered with a broken neck in the Nevada desert outside of town.  There were no footprints or tire tracks near the body to indicate how it got there, though foul play was obviously suspected.  Speculation and rumours were both rampant and implausible.  Gray had possible gambling debts with mobster Meyer Lansky, he had become a heroin addict relatively recently and the broken neck may have been a desperate cover-up for an overdose.  Or maybe it was the act of a jealous boyfriend, Gray was a noted ladies’ man.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the attitude of the police at the time toward black, strung-out bebop musicians, there was only a cursory examination of the case and incredibly it was ruled an accidental death.  To this day there is no explanation of his murder.

Gray is little remembered now, although revered by many veteran saxophonists, but his reputation as a jazz giant could rest on this live performance of “Blue Lou” alone.


5.  Lester Young – January 16, 1938 – Carnegie Hall

We return here to Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert; there was something in the air that night, along with a cornucopia of jazz talent.  Goodman invited a number of key musicians from the bands of Duke Ellington (Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney) and Count Basie (Basie, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Freddie Greene and Walter Page) to play as guests in a jam session along with him and some of his sidemen – Harry James, trombonist Vernon Brown and Gene Krupa.

Goodman really admired Young, so much so that he actually gave him one of his own clarinets, even though it was Lester’s secondary instrument and Benny was not generally given to generous gestures.  At the time, Young was in the midst of revolutionizing the saxophone vocabulary in his ‘Midas touch’ period from 1936-39, when he seemed incapable of playing anything that was less than inspired.  His very first recording session with a Basie small group in 1936 showed him fully formed, yielding two of the greatest solos he (or anyone else) ever played – on “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy”.  He continued with countless other gems on recordings with Basie’s big band, his small groups and the great records he made with Billie Holiday in those years.

They play “Honeysuckle Rose” at a medium-up tempo, beginning with two melody choruses by the whole group in a polyphonic, almost Dixieland style.  It’s pretty loose and cluttered, but the rhythm section gathers some steam and when this blurry cacophony dies down at the end of the second chorus, there’s a brief instant of silence and suspense and Young comes catapulting out of this, airborne like an eagle over the chugging beat.  The effect of his entry is like looking into a telescope and suddenly twisting the lens into focus, everything goes from fuzzy to razor-sharp in an instant.  It’s an electrifying moment, the sudden, quiet clarity in contrast to the elephantine beginning is devastating and so is what follows. Young plays two soaring choruses that are the equal of any solo he ever played, his feet never touch the ground.

All his virtues are present here in spades – the glowing, buttery sound, the velocity and momentum of his perfectly buoyant time, the swooping augmented runs, the unexpected spaces and accents, the sudden shifts in timbre, pitch and attack.  He starts his second chorus off with one of his celebrated, honking ‘yodels’ – four bars using just one note, the sixth, repeated in an irresistible riff-like phrase, each D-concert imbued with a different attack and sound, an inner glow provided by the tonal distortion of false fingering.  The rhythmic effect is that of a trampoline, bouncing the pulse ahead even more.  Like all great Prez solos, this one sounds simple, yet is elusive and ineffable.  I’ve heard it dozens of times and still it surprises me, I try to sing along with it, but can never quite catch its nuances.  It’s like trying to hug vapour or capture mercury with a catcher’s mitt, it’s always just out of reach.

Having Prez lead off guaranteed a good start, but otherwise was an act of musical suicide for all present; his solo wasn’t just a hard act to follow, it was impossible.  The whole jam session is 13 minutes long and there are some fine moments following Young, especially from Basie, Clayton and Goodman.  Freddie Greene even takes a rare turn in the spotlight, of course he plays a chord solo.  But all the fine playing of such top talent is rendered anticlimactic and irrelevant by the brilliance of Lester’s solo, it was all over as soon as he took the horn out of his mouth.  It’s similar to the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens from the ’20s; the other guys are good musicians of their time and play well, but Pops is light years ahead of them.  So too with Charlie Parker’s mid-40s bop records – Bird is flying to the moon in a spaceship while the rhythm section is still slogging through the muddy streets of Palookaville.  Given that he was tossing off magic solos regularly in those days, Young’s playing is not really a surprise here, but the odd setting does show how dramatically ahead of everyone else he was.  On this night, these other great players represented the best of the present and past, but Lester Young was playing the future.

After the jam, these Basie men joined the rest of the band up in Harlem for their real work, a much anticipated ‘battle of the bands’ against Chick Webb’s powerhouse outfit on his home turf, the Savoy Ballroom.  No recordings of this exist that I know of, but the heat generated by these two great bands going toe-to-toe in live competition must have blown the roof off the place.  Unbelievable, but for these men, it was all just in a night’s work.


© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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