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Lions in Winter

Greg Simmons By

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Recently passed jazz greats, saxophonist James Moody and pianist Hank Jones, were both fortunate enough to be making solid, vital recordings right up to the ends of their lives. Moody's 4A (IPO, 2009) and 4B (IPO, 2010) were as well-played as any he ever recorded, and Jones, who was still active in his last year at the age of 92, was the quintessential jazz classicist—a person younger musicians turned to when they wanted to hear something played right.

Of course, neither Moody or Jones were the first musicians to leave us for that big gig in the sky. With over a hundred years of recorded jazz available in virtually every format imaginable there are an inestimable number of 78s, albums, CDs, digital files—you name it—from thousands of artists representing millions of performance hours. And, as sad as it is to say, most of those musicians are now deceased. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Bud Powell and all the rest are like ghosts speaking to us across the ages, living on through their recorded performances. Some, like Charlie Parker or Clifford Brown, have been lionized posthumously for far longer than they were ever active as working performers. Like it or not, most of the greatest artists ever to play this music are never going to be heard in a club or hall ever again. Thank goodness, then, for the art of recorded music.

Moody and Jones' coda recordings were of exceptionally high quality, which begs the question: Who else left that last masterpiece in evidence of their undiminished skill and swing? (OK, to be fair, the answer to this question alone could fill an encyclopedia.) Who else went out with their horn held high, and their toes tapping?

Scanning the dusty racks of vinyl finds three good candidates, all by musicians of the same generation, and coincidentally all on the same label: Norman Granz's 1970's imprint, Pablo. In the pantheon of jazz stars Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie shine as bright as anyone ever did. All three made recordings, late in their careers, that stand up today and compare well with recordings each made during their heydays.

When tenor man Hawkins died in 1969, his health had been in decline for some years. Various biographies suggest that he'd been drinking more and he seems to have suffered from a form of dementia. In that context, his last recording session from December 20th, 1966, yielding the posthumously released album Sirius, is sometimes derided as unworthy: a portrait of a great musician whose horn had tarnished with age. Hawk's fingering seems a little slower, but his tone, his expressiveness and his deep blues all remain powerfully intact. In fact, when he duets with pianist Barry Harris on "Time on My Hands," his saxophone is so emotive that it almost sounds as if he's crying through it. Harris lays out completely for a few bars, leaving Hawkins blowing alone in an audible space. It's sad, poignant and beautiful, and quite possibly the most overtly emotional thing Hawkins ever recorded.

In 1983 the Kid from Red Bank, Count Basie, cut a pair of albums on Pablo. One of them, the full big-band session 88 Basie Street, has since become a lauded jazz and audiophile classic. The other one, Mostly Blues...And Some Others, is a more modest affair, featuring a septet, but may be more illustrative of Basie as a musician. Always known as a spare pianist, preferring a few perfectly placed notes to a torrent of sound, Mostly Blues is that rare recording where Basie takes equal time with his sidemen, comping vigorously for them, but also taking ample time in the lead. He intersperses his signature single-note accents over a boogie line behind Joe Pass and Eddie Davis on, "Blues for Charlie Christian," and then opens, "Jaws," with a lengthy blue intro that showcases his minimalist grandeur, even as he sets the stage for Davis to workout. Basie's playing is prominent on every track. It's a shame that Basie didn't record more small-group dates during his lifetime because his piano is just pure pleasure to hear. William Basie died less than a year after this recording was made, having maintained his performance standards to the end.

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