Storyville Records: A Treasure Trove of Swinging Jazz
Another of Webster's mottos was: "There are only three tempos in jazz: slow, medium and slow." This is the maxim de jour throughout disc two, The Beautiful, which collects 14 prime examples of Webster the balladeer. Aside from five tracks recorded in New York in 1958 and 1964including "Sophisticated Lady," an eight-minute private recording made with bassist Milt Hinton at Hinton's New York home shortly before Webster left the USall the tracks were recorded in Europe.
To listen to Webster over 68:27 minutes of uninterrupted balladeering is the audio equivalent of tantric sex. Gorgeous, voluptuous, exquisitely lyrical, with a tone that will soothe the most savage beast, this is Webster at his most transporting.
At Montmartre 1965/66
The first nine tracks on this 12-track CD were recorded at Copenhagen's Montmartre club in January 1965, a month after Webster's arrival in Europe. The final three tracks were recorded at the club in May 1966. The Montmartre was practically Webster's home from home in Copenhagen, and he performed there frequently: the first disc in the Dig Ben! box set consists of nine tracks he recorded there in May 1968.
On practically all these Montmartre recordings, the pianist is Kenny Drew and the bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Drummers are Al Heath, on the box set, and Alex Riel and Atli Bjorn on this CD. Highlights here are the four ballads: "My Romance," "How Long Has This Been Going On," "Someone To Watch Over Me" and Danny Boy."
The Brute And The Beautiful and At Montmartre 1965/66 are both excellent entry points for Webster novitiates, and there are other Webster discs in the Storyville catalogue of an equally high standard. But for devotees, anything other than the Dig Ben! box set is a compromise.
The Duke Box
There's a feast of Webster to be heard on The Duke Box, an eight-CD box set which focuses entirely on Duke Ellington's band of the 1940s, in which Webster was the first important tenor saxophone soloist and of which he was a member from 1940-43 and from 1948-49. The discs proceed chronologically, from January 1940 to February 1949.
Ellington's bands of the 1940s are widely considered to be his finest, by virtue of both their personnel and their material. Bassist Jimmy Blanton, who freed the instrument up and helped pave the way for bop, had joined the lineup in 1939 and remained there until his death in 1942. The "Webster-Blanton band" is featured on the first three discs in the box. Other of Ellington's signature soloists heard in that band include alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, alto saxophonist and clarinetist Otto Hardwick, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, trumpeters Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and Ray Nance, and trombonists "Tricky" Sam Nanton and Juan Tizol. The drummer, throughout the decade, was Sonny Greer.
The Duke Box also charts the arrival of Billy Strayhorn in the Ellington organization. Strayhorn was recruited as assistant arranger in 1939, and almost immediately began contributing custom originals to the repertoire. His "Take The A Train," first heard here in a 1943 recording on disc four, returns on most of the subsequent discs in the box.
The nine hours of music included on The Duke Box mostly originated as live radio broadcasts made on tour in the US. Sound quality, which has been much enhanced by digital technology, varies, but is always above average. And, as Dan Morgenstern observes in the erudite session notes which make up the bulk of the box's large format, 40-page booklet, the human ear is a remarkable receptor, and recalibrates very quickly to optimize the quality of what it is picking up.