Classic vinyl remasterings from Storyville

Chris Mosey By

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In time for the festive season, the Copenhagen label Storyville is reissuing three classic albums from its archives remastered on 180-gram vinyl: Charlie Parker In Sweden, 1950; Ben Webster Plays Ballads; and Sahib Shihab's "lost" minor masterpiece Sentiments.

The Charlie Parker album was recorded on November 24, 1950 at a concert in the southern Swedish city of Helsingborg and a jam session afterwards. It was last made available in 1983 and comes with original sleeve art and liner notes by Lars Werner, of the Swedish magazine Orkesterjournalen, edited and updated by Chris Albertson in 1979. Rolf Ericson, local lad who went on to play with both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, was on trumpet for the concert tracks but was replaced by Rowland Greenberg for the jam session.

Bird's biographer Ross Russell hailed this as "one of the happiest and most fulfilling days of his life." Just five years later, Parker's massive intake of drugs and drink would lead to a rapid decline in his health followed by premature death at the age of 35. The doctor who examined him just before the end, had trouble believing Parker's age. He asked Bird if he drank. Parker famously—and no doubt apocryphally—replied: "Sometimes, Doc, I take a little sherry before dinner."

Ben Webster Plays Ballads features the great Swing era saxophonist, accompanied by various constellations of the Danish Radio Band, easing into the rut of supremely accomplished ballad interpretation he would continue to inhabit—when sober—for the rest of his life. Two supremely gifted American pianists, Teddy Wilson and Kenny Drew help him on his way.

Sahib Shihab's Sentiments, has for a long time been available only as a high-priced second-hand rarity. This reissue comes with the saxophonist's own original and concise but highly informative liner notes. Born Edmund Gregory in Savannah, Georgia, he changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1947. Becoming disillusioned with racial politics in America, he moved to Denmark in 1958. Here, he played the strangest gig of his life: accompanying pop balladeers Lill Lindfors and Svante Thuresson on "Nygammal Vals," Sweden's entry in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest.

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker In Sweden 1950

Charlie Parker was treated as an honored celebrity on his 1950 week-long tour of Sweden, sponsored by the Swedish jazz magazine Estrad. He avoided controversy. Asked about the conflict between traditional and modern jazz, he replied, "There is no point in talking about different kinds of jazz. The most important thing for us is to have our efforts accepted as music." When asked about race relations in America, he simply shrugged and refused to discuss the matter.

While the Storyville recording leaves much to be desired technically, it is marvelously atmospheric, documenting the last happy time of Parker's life when he was at the top of his game musically and not totally in thrall to heroin. Though during the tour, it's true, he did consume enough schnapps in which to float a battleship... or two.

"Anthropology" and "Scrapple From The Apple" are Parker's own compositions, the former sometimes known as "Thriving On A Riff." They are archetypal bebop. "Anthropology," from 1945, is loosely based on George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" and played at a ferocious tempo. Bird's solo is followed by one from Ericson. "Scrapple From The Apple," which Parker wrote two years later, is based primarily on the chord changes for "Honeysuckle Rose."

"Embraceable You" and "Star Eyes" showcase Parker at his most sumptuous, sometimes reminiscent of Johnny Hodges, who was the man on alto until Bird emerged from his woodshed to change the way the music was played.

"All The Things You Are" and "Strike Up The Band" on Side Two wind up recordings from the concert. Then comes the jam session, with a dip in sound quality but a gain in improvisational excitement and a feeling of being there, notably with Parker's take on "Body And Soul," which Coleman Hawkins had made his own in 1939. The session winds up with "How High The Moon," which he gradually converts to his own bebop classic "Ornithology."

Ben Webster
Ben Webster Plays Ballads
Storyville Storyville

In 1964 the great Swing era tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, picked up Ol' Betsy, his saxophone, and left the U.S.A to spend the rest of his days in Europe. He played for a month at Ronnie Scott's in London, then moved on, living first in Amsterdam then in Copenhagen. Had America treated him and jazz in general with more respect, would he have stayed? It's possible. Then again, Webster was oftentimes a pugnacious drunk who did not act rationally but on instinct. Not for nothing did his fellow jazzmen call him "The Brute."

He found plenty of work in Europe but not the challenges needed to keep him developing as a musician. Instead, he said, he learned from listening to his own playing on records—"You can always see a spot or two in the record where you could have done better. So you more or less study this way."

Caught in a musical closed circuit, "The Brute" grew contemptuous of European musicians. His drinking increased, his health declined. Sometimes he would show up late for gigs, sometimes he wouldn't show up at all.

The Storyville album features him with the Danish Radio Group during the late sixties and early seventies before the rot set in. One of its members, saxophonist Jesper Thilo knew Webster well and would often visit him at the flat in which he lived alone in Copenhagen. Thilo says: "We'd have a beer or something stronger and talk about music. I think he wanted the same role for himself that Coleman Hawkins had in New York. He wanted to help me with things he knew a lot about, like tone formation. He taught me a lot about embouchure, about how to develop a good sound."

Alas, "The Brute" never became the elder statesman he'd like to have been. On this album he plays in different formations but always on a respectful footing with the locals. "Stardust," the opening number, features Teddy Wilson on piano and the great Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass. Webster sticks very close to the melody, his opening solo a miracle of under-statement. He is followed by Wilson at his most elegant.

Webster appears to feed on this, going on—for the rest of the number, and indeed the whole album—still sticking close to the melody but varying his expression in a myriad of immensely subtle ways. He is at his best on "My Romance" and "Willow Weep For Me," when the pianist is fellow American exile Kenny Drew.

You may wonder how a man of Webster's often volatile and violent temperament could display the kind of supercharged sensitivity displayed on this album. You may also wonder why he chose to make such breathy ballads as these his trademark? After all, his big feature in the Ellington band, where he made his name from 1940—43, was the up-tempo "Cottontail."

The answer to the riddle can perhaps be found in his admiration for two great altoists, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. By all accounts, Carter was the only man Webster could listen to when he was in his cups. He would say of him: "There's a man who can bake a cake as light as a feather and whip any man."

He might as well have said the same thing about his friend Hodges, by all accounts, off the bandstand a surly, often downright unpleasant individual but on it a player of great power and beauty. "Rabbit" was a dab hand when it came to tone and emotion, and these qualities he bequeathed to Webster.

Sahib Shihab
Storyville Storyville

Sahib Shihab played all members of the saxophone family plus flute. He filled lead alto spot with Fletcher Henderson in the 1940s, before going on to play with Thelonious Monk. In 1959 he toured Europe with Quincy Jones. Disillusioned with racial politics in America, Shihab settled in Copenhagen.

Sentiments was recorded in 1973. It is notable for the leader's original, highly inventive songs inspired by visits to Paris and Tunis and features American drummer Jimmy Hopps, who Shihab met in Paris. The opener, "Ma 'Nee" is based on a melody Shihab heard being sung on a bus in Tunis by two unknown locals, accompanied by a drum. Ma 'Nee means "meaning" in Urdu. Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen's solo is underpinned by Hopps, best known for his later work with multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk. Kenny Drew, an early American immigrant to Denmark, plays some fine, lyrical piano.

"The Call" is in 5/4 and starts with what Shihab calls "a chant of eastern flavour," after which the rhythm becomes free-form. Everything comes back together again with the original chant as the song ends with a fade.

"Rue de la Harpe" is named for a small street in the Latin Quarter of Paris where Shihab worked in a jazz club called Le Chat Qui Peche" (The Cat Which Fishes). On "From Me To You" Shihab plays baritone for the first time on record, backed by NHØP. Shihab plays alto flute on "Companionship," the only time the instrument is played on the album.

Shihab died on October 24 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee. Sentiments is a fitting memorial to his days in Copenhagen and it's good to have it back in circulation again.

Tracks and Personnel

Charlie Parker in Sweden

Tracks: (Side 1) Anthropology; Scrapple From The Apple; Embraceable You; Cool Blues; Star Eyes. (Side 2) All The Things You Are; Strike Up The Band; Body And Soul; Fine And Dandy; How High The Moon. Personnel: Charlie Parker: alto saxophone; Rolf Ericson, Rowland Greenberg: trumpet; Gosta Theselius, Lennart Nilsson: piano; Thore Jederby: bass; Jack Noren: drums.

Ben Webster Plays Ballads

Tracks: (Side 1) Stardust; Cry Me A River; For Heaven's Sake; Greensleeves. (Side 2) My Romance; Willow Weep For Me; Old Folks. Personnel: Ben Webster: tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, Kenny Drew, Ole Kock Hansen: piano; Niels Jorgen Steen, Palle Mikkelborg, Perry Knudsen, Palle Bolvig, Allan Botschinsky, Henry Henkel: trumpet; Poul Jorgensen, Per Espersen, Torolf Molgard, Ole Kurt Jensen, Helmuth Hjort Hansen: trombone; Uffe Karskov, Jesper Thilo, Erling Christensen, Bent Nielsen, Flemming Madsen, Sahib Shihab: reeds; Ole Molin: guitar; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Hugo Rasmussen: bass; William Schioppfe, Bjarne Rostvold, Al Heath: drums.

Sentiments, Sahib Shihab

Tracks: (Side 1) Ma'Nee; The Call; Rue de la Harpe. (Side 2) Sentiments; From Me To You; Extase; Companionship. Personnel: Sahib Shihab: alto and baritone saxophones, flute; Kenny Drew: piano; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen: bass; Jimmy Hopps: drums.

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