It was once remarked that Miles Davis "knew how to play all the pretty notes." While this may be undeniably true, if there was ever a man who knew how to play all the pretty songs, it was Ben Webster. No other jazzman has ever mastered the art of the ballad as definitively as Webster. This is not to say that Webster couldn't swing with the best of them (you can ask the boys in Duke Ellington's band about that). But Webster's tender treatments of "the pretty songs" are what he was best known for, and rightfully so, as his renditions are truly works of art.
On this disc, Webster is matched with Verve's most prolific artist, Oscar Peterson. The results of this "meeting" (which is a misnomer, as the two had performed several times before and even previously recorded together several times, including at least four times for Verve) are truly a pleasure to experience. From the opening of the first tune, "The Touch Of Your Lips," Peterson bops along, carrying and supporting the melodic line. Webster then rolls in with his signature sound, deep and breathy, and full of life. Webster's sound is a great deal like drinking high quality scotch or bourbon: as it slides smoothly down, it's warmth slowly and almost undetectedly takes over, enveloping you in its comfortable grasp until you are left reveling in it, hoping it will never leave you. Together they produce and ideal match, with Peterson offering the linear structure and Webster providing the more abstract emotion.
As for highlights of the disc, well, they're all keepers. "When Your Lover Has Gone," "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," and "How Deep Is The Ocean?" are all Webster classics, wonderfully melodic slow ballads that ooze emotion. "The Touch Of Your Lips" and "Bye-bye, Blackbird" are both mid-tempo boppers that dance along, propelled by Peterson's twinkling runs. "Sunday" and "This Can't Be Love" close out the set on an up-beat note, giving Webster's Ellingtonian leanings a chance to shine.
Webster's influence on jazz can not be overstated. In recent years, Sonny Rollins has tended to play more and more ballads, and when recently asked why, he commented that ballads were probably the hardest thing to learn to play, at least to learn to play well. When asked later who had influenced his ballad playing, Sonny remarked that he had listened to a lot of Ben Webster. Webster, he said, not only knew all the ballads, but was known for knowing all the lyrics to the songs as well. This is part of what gave him such an in depth understanding of the essence of the song, essential for communicating the basic emotion of the song.
In closing, when listening to Ben Webster play, I am always reminded of a quote by Jimmy Durante, who when asked about his emotion filled singing remarked, "Sometimes, I sings so pretty, I make myself want to cry." Well, while there are no recorded episodes of Ben Webster tearing up on stage, his playing has lead to many a moist eye in the crowd, I am sure.