Ben Webster (1909-73), perhaps the least acknowledged of the great jazz tenor saxophonists, was fortunate enough to have a varied 40-year recording career. His ballads were immensely tender and his blues and faster tunes could be nearly violent in their intensity. Hence the title of this two-disc set, a centennial issue that celebrates this musical duality. Webster's career found him in so many contexts (accompanying Billie Holiday, early and late; an integral member of the classic 1940-41 Ellington orchestra; leading 52nd Street small groups with Big Sid Catlett, Al Haig, Tony Scott and others; recording with strings; starring in Jazz at the Philharmonic for Norman Granz) that a two-CD set doesn't come close to doing him justice. Most of the material is taken from Webster's final decade, spent in Europe, where he played primarily with rhythm trios, less often with the Danish Radio Big Band. Eight earlier tracks recorded in the United States find him with local pick-up groups; one exception, from 1949, features pianist Jay McShann and blues singer Walter Brown. Another is an intimate duet with his friend, bassist Milt Hinton, recorded in the latter's basement.
This set promises a number of tracks that have never been issued before and the book-length Webster discography (Langhorn and Sjogren, 1996) indicates that 10 of the 27 tracks here are indeed newly issued. Some of these discoveries are quite rewarding: the slow-tempo "Sweet Georgia Brown" with violinist Finn Ziegler and "Better Go" with trumpeter Carmell Jones are especially fine. But Webster's European accompanists were often not up to his level or idiomatically appropriate. He plays wonderfully throughout this set, but is often forced to play against a more boppish rhythm section than he might have preferred and a number of the ballad performances are mired in lush semi-symphonic arrangements. The audio quality won't bother those accustomed to collectors' tapes of rare performances where the volume levels go up and down from track to track and the fidelity is often inferior, but these things might distress more sensitive listeners.
However, a handful of tracks (not all of them new to CD) are priceless. Webster started his musical career as a stride pianist and he loved the idiom, even when he was clearly out of practice. The first CD begins with two brief run-throughs of "In A Mellotone," slow and fast, with Webster lumbering joyously through the unabashed conventions of stride circa 1932. The duet with Hinton on "Sophisticated Lady" is enthralling even when you have heard it a dozen times. Just as affecting are two quartet performances with Teddy Wilson"Stardust" from 1969 and "Old Folks" from 1970the latter a mournful tribute to Webster's friend, mentor, section-mate and colleague Johnny Hodges, who had just died. Taken together, these five performances add up to an irreplaceable 20 minutes, but Webster is a far more diversified creative figure than this set can contain. So much emphasis is put on his last years, that the set often seems a lopsided portrait of a great musician, an addendum to the recent Webster boxed set, Dig Ben.
In A Mellotone; In A Mellotone; Blues in Bb; Cottontail; Nasty Attitude; Dancing On the Ceiling; Indiana; The Man I Love; Sometimes I'm Happy; Things Ain't What They Used To Be; Sweet Georgia Brown; Better Go; The Theme.
Stardust; My Romance; Over the Rainbow; Old Folks; Come Sunday; Bye Bye Blackbird; Tenderly; Embraceable You; Ad Lib Blues; Sophisticated Lady; Danny Boy; Goin' Home; You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To; The Theme.
Ben Webster: tenor sax, piano; Kenny Drew, Jay McShann, Charlie McLean, Tete Montoliu, Teddy Wilson, Mike Renzi: piano; Niels Henning Orsted Petersen, Lloyd Anderson, John Dailey, Milt Hinton: bass; Alex Riel, Jesse Price, Ray White, Al "Tootie" Heath: drums; Walter Brown: vocal; Vernon Bell, Jimmy Canaday: guitar; Jesper Thilo, Dexter Gordon: tenor sax; Sahib Shihab: baritone sax; Finn Ziegler: violin; Carmel Jones: trumpet; strings, others.