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Pee Wee Russell: Swingin' With Pee Wee

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Pee Wee Russell was an odd-duck of a clarinetist who in his idiosyncratic way foreshadowed some of the innovations of modern jazz. His playing at times seems "off" in the way that some of the earliest jazz sounds almost otherworldly with its unique tones and timbres. Russell’s expressive slides and dips pre-figure the likes of the later Lester Young, and in our day Lee Konitz, especially when his playing became more voice-like, and the expectations of others seemed to matter even less. It seems the better Russell played the more idiosyncratic he got. Pee Wee was a natural odd duck.

On Swingin’ with Pee Wee Russell’s fragile sound acts as a questioning foil to the forthright vigor of Buck Clayton, Tommy Flanagan, Ruby Braff, and Vic Dickenson. Their swing clarity of tone and rhythm is only one approach, and Russell’s range suggests there are other possibilities. At times, he is a bit outrageous, and at the beginning of a solo you can’t help wondering, "can he get away with this?" But sure enough just when he sounds as if he might fall off the edge, everything somehow finds its place.

Swingin’ with Pee Wee is a combination of two previously released swing sessions from 1958 and 1960. The first is extraordinary, with a band that includes Buck Clayton, Tommy Flanagan, Wendell Marshall, and Osie Johnson. This is great Buck Clayton. His confident trumpet sound, and rhythmic virtuosity reminds the listener who regularly inspired Lester Young in the Basie Orchestra. The rhythm section is driven by drummer Osie Johnson. He has a precision and lightness of touch that seems to float the whole band - this is a fine performance by a much underrated musician. Ex-Ellington bassist Wendell Marshall and Tommy Flanagan are their usual first-rate selves. Flanagan is in a bluesy, swing mood that dovetails with Clayton. When Flanagan solos above the bass and drums you realize just how good these three are together. In short, this is an excellent band caught on an inspired day.

The first seven tracks are on this long (77:31) disc are with the Clayton/Flanagan Quintet. Tracks 8-16 are with a septet that includes Ruby Braff and Vic Dickenson. Nat Pierce plays piano and contributed the comfortable, laid back arrangements. The soloists are casual and considerate, the unison playing and the horn/sax lines are a tribute to Pierce’s talent as an arranger. Pee Wee Russell seems to be enjoying the setting, creating doubt and wonderment; and it’s always a treat to hear soloists Braff and Dickenson in any setting. This session may lack the fire and drive of the first session but it does provide another interesting angle for a good listen to one of the unique voices of jazz, Mr. Pee Wee Russell.

Track Listing: What Can I Say Dear, After I Say I

Personnel: Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; and Osie Johnson, drums.

Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Ruby Braff, trumpet; Bud Freeman, tenor sax; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Nat Pierce, piano, arrangements; Tommy Potter, bass; and Karl Kiffe, drums.

Record Label: Prestige Records

Style: Dixieland/New Orleans/Swing


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