It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I felt compelled to start some serious digging through the history of American recorded music that preceded my birth (in 1958).
The 1980s weren’t a particularly good time to start this sort of historical study, as there were few compilation releases to help me quell my curiosity. Digging through bins in used record stores was my idea of fun, but the process started slowly and a bit painfully, until the onset of the CD era resulted in a barrage of compilations and collections. Suddenly, there were loads of luxurious box sets and series collections dedicated to major artists, and I quickly learned to love artists like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.
One favorite collection that I stumbled upon was called “The Blanton-Webster years”, a three-CD collection of Duke Ellington’s most fabled era. I played those disks so often that I started to memorize not only the music but even their playing order. Ben Webster’s saxophone hypnotized me, and he quickly became my favorite sax player, over Coleman Hawkins (old school) or even John Coltrane (new school). Webster had such control over his instrument that he made it sound effortless, while playing some of the smoothest, lyrical lines I’d ever heard from a saxophone. The four-year period that Webster played with Duke was pretty much all that I knew about Webster, but that was enough to keep me occupied.
It wasn’t until decades later that I realized I never bothered to discover what happened to Ben Webster after he left Ellington’s band. I presumed that he fell from fashion as jazz moved from swing to bop (which was partially true), but I was pleased to discover that he recorded some very promising sides for Norman Granz’s Verve label. Verve struck me as one of the most sophisticated labels of the fifties, not only because the recordings were always pristine but also because they offered some intriguing combinations of famous performers. One promising release featured the combination of Art Tatum and Ben Webster, an interesting matchup but one that didn’t meet my expectations. It turned out to be Tatum’s last recording session before his death, and the album left me with the impression that he had a bit too much to say. With Tatum never relenting, Webster’s solos sound as though they could have been overdubbed on top of a solo Tatum performance. A combination that fared much better was the ‘Encounter’ between Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Here, both sax players swap solos with such élan that differentiating one from the other became a process similar to what I learned as a teenager trying to discern Dickie Betts from Duane Allman on the Fillmore East recordings. It’s an exciting record that can leave you breathless, but of all the Ben Webster/Verve releases, the one I learned to love most was “Soulville.”
The cover was a bit off-putting. Webster looks miserable on the cover shot, and the crimson-soaked tint does nothing to alleviate that impression. He looks like a man resigned to his fate, as though he’s waiting for his name to be called for a mugshot. The contents, though, could not be further away from the unfortunate photo. Webster sounds cool, calm and collected, allowing the Oscar Peterson Trio (and drummer Stan Levey) all the freedom they need to sound like the first-class outfit they are. Peterson’s band was the ‘go to’ source for backing musicians on the Verve label, and this set strikes me as a high point for the band as much as it was for Webster. The two bluesy original numbers that open “Soulville” (“Soulville” and “Late Date”) set a cool, relaxed pace for the standards that follow. The beautiful thing about the album is that it does not demand attention but rewards it. It’s perfect dinner party music that nonetheless pulls you into its space. Every track is nuanced, conveying a sense of warmth and familiarity that blends into any environment. Perhaps Ben Webster wasn’t breaking new ground here, but he and the Oscar Peterson Trio do an impeccable job of smoothing the pavement.
Time on My Hands
Lover, Come Back to Me
Where Are You?
January 1958 – Billboard Did Not Chart