Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry: Tenor Giants offers first rate performances of a familiar master and introduces to many the small group recordings of a tenor who shared solo time with Lester Young in the Count Basie Band. This GRP reissue features two Coleman Hawkins sessions, of 1940 and 1943, and two Chu Berry recordings, of 1938 and 1941. In addition to the headliners' outstanding tenor solo work, outstanding trumpet work of either Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams or "Hot Lips" Page grace the four different sessions.
The most striking session is the 1940 "Chocolate Dandies" session that features an inspired Hawkins, Eldridge, and Benny Carter swapping solo time in a round of joyous competition. These six tracks are extraordinary performances akin to some of the solo instrumental work on the best of Billie Holiday recordings. The order of solos circles from Hawkins to Eldridge to Carter, all soaring above a tight rhythm foundation. Throughout, Carter and Eldridge give Hawkins a run for his money; this is truly a session when the great swing masters were at play.
The second Hawkins session, with Leonard Feather's All Stars, features a cast that includes Cootie Williams, Edmond Hall, Al Casey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, and Sid Catlett. This recording date is notable for two extraordinary solos, one by Williams on "Boff Boff" and the other by Hawkins on "My Ideal." Throughout the session Cootie Williams leaves little doubt as to why he was one of Ellington's lead soloists. Art Tatum's solo work is busily brilliant but his style at times is at odds with the swing feel of the session. Another minor complaint is that Al Casey's simply conceived guitar solos occasionally present an unsatisfying contrast to the sophistication of the lead soloists. It should be noted that the two Coleman Hawkins sessions comprise 10 of the 20 cuts on this long CD (67 minutes). Hawkins is in fine form throughout both sessions, admirers will not be disappointed, and listeners unfamiliar with Hawkins will be introduced to a jazz immortal in his prime.
Chu Berry was a featured soloist in Cab Calloway's band and also played with the Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson big bands during the 1930's. In addition, he is noted for being one of the "other" tenor saxophonists in the Count Basie Band who played alongside the great Lester Young. Quite a resume. Luckily for us, Chu Berry was also recorded in the two small group sessions that are included in this CD. Luckily because these sessions highlight Berry as a leader and soloist along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge in the 1938 session, and with trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page in the 1941 session. Both of these sessions also feature Clyde Hart on piano who plays throughout in a spare, asymmetrical style foreshadowing a modernistic piano approach more typical of the following decades.
Berry plays with the vibrato of his era. His tenor solos are outstanding for their emotional intensity and their graceful development. In the 1938 session with the "Little Jazz Ensemble" a hot Eldridge contrasts with the thoughtful melancholy of Chu Berry whose solos develop in a symmetrical manner akin to Hawkins. Berry and Eldridge's solos on "Body and Soul" are superb. The solo work of Berry, Eldridge, and Hart swing above a solid rhythm section. This session of four tracks, is the second great session on this marvelous CD.
The last session, "Chu Berry And His Jazz Ensemble" features Berry and the trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page. At times, this is an up tempo session with rhythm section that makes up for its lack of subtlety with spirit and enthusiasm. Chu Berry is up to the challenge, his exchanges with Page are exciting. Berry's solo work on a slower tempo "On the Sunnyside of the Street" highlights what a master of phrasing can do with a simple tune. Clyde Hart's solo and accompaniment work on "Monday at Minton's" are flavored with a hint of the modernists to come with an angularity that is reminiscent of some of Ellington's more Monkish sounding pieces.
In summary, this is a disc to pick-up for consistently superb performances by Hawkins, Berry, Carter, and Eldridge. The supporting cast is sometimes uneven, but Clyde Hart's piano work and "Hot Lips" Page's trumpet work are interesting throughout. This is a disc that reminds us of the emotional richness of swing music in contrast to our often techno-glitzy time. Both Hawkins and Berry are indeed "Tenor Giants" and this disc will prove it every time it spins.