Pee Wee Russell: Swingin' with Pee Wee
“We just made a record,” he said at the bar. “And it was a good one – I think.” The formula was simple: after Buck Clayton was picked for the front line, the producer was told to get a rhythm section. “You go ahead and surprise me. I trust your judgment. But don’t make it a ‘Dixieland’ section.” What he got was Tommy Flanagan, and a modern sheen for the old horn. A similar tack was taken in 1958, on a session for Counterpoint. Nat Pierce set smooth horns against Pee Wee, for strength and for contrast. It works in both cases: the swing sounds more current, and his tone is sharper, with less of the familiar rust. And, despite the changes, Pee Wee is still Pee Wee. And that is all you need.
Flanagan starts crisply, Clayton mutes a sweet opening, and then Russell enters, high and clean. In their hands, “Sorry” sounds truly apologetic, and when Buck solos open, he’s soft and warm. Pee Wee is placid and wistful, words rarely said of him. And so it goes: “Midnight Blue” is cheerful and young, a little grain from Russell but mostly deep wood. Flanagan is tender, and Clayton has a winning rasp. And Pee Wee’s romantic on “The Very Thought of You”, fuzzy notes and big vibrato. It’s an old sound, well suited to Buck’s mute. You lean back and wait for more of the smooth serenade.
And here comes “Englewood”. Stringy bass, slappin’ drums, and an indescribable wall of noise – the sound of rusty gears. It’s Pee Wee all right, grinding the blues as dirty as he can get. Buck responds open and pure, and Russell warbles high; hard notes and airy lines. The others have their say, and the rust returns, clamoring with Buck’s wah-wah, and charming the listener. “Anything for You” is a romp, Buck shouting broad with Pee Wee slow and low. And “Wrap Your Troubles” is a fond farewell, Buck soaring (the high notes are surprising) and Pee Wee strutting, the drums clicking happy behind him. Near the end he goes rough, and takes the tune over. Wendell Marshall has a nice bit to close, and the session ends, a lazy day with plenty of swing. And that’s just the half of it!
The ’58 session has its own sound; the studio has less echo, and more focus is on Pee Wee. The other horns are largely backdrop, a smooth wall for Russell to work his breathy magic. At times they speak (Vic Dickenson does well on “That Old Feeling”), but all eyes are on the leader. On most of these he takes light vibrato, with a fuzzy edge to the notes; the feeling of grit without the full rust. Pierce’s piano is not bright as Flanagan’s, but the easy swing is there, especially where Russell is the lone horn. “Exactly Like You” is the first of these, and here the tone is pure, not quite “Midnight Blue” but far cleaner than normal. It’s a hoot, and the first highlight.
The band is best heard on “It All Depends on You”, and old-timey chart with Pee Wee weaving within. Dickinson takes a great chorus, and Bud Freeman has one of his best. The clarinet’s turn is short but sweet – and is made up on “If I Had You”, the next quartet. The rasp begins to show, along with a broader vibrato – nice. The chart distracts on “Out of Nowhere”; it seems to take attention away from Pee Wee’s splendid line. The upside is Freeman’s gentility, and a good shout from Ruby Braff. “Pee Wee Blues” is lonely and nervous; Russell goes high, and nearly squeaks as his fright goes deeper. Tommy Potter has a graceful solo, and the leader sneaks away at the fade, still concerned. And “Oh No!” is a rollicking bar: sparkling drums and blossoming horns. Braff states the theme, and Pee Wee waits for a while; your patience is rewarded by liquid notes and then a gutsy honk. The band takes the theme together, allowing Pee Wee one last groan. Is it worth it? Oh, yes!