Lester Young – Centennial Celebration

Lester Young
Centennial Celebration
Concord Jazz – 2009

By the time he reached the height of his powers in the 1950s, Lester Young had single-handedly redefined the role of the tenor saxophone within the jazz idiom. Standing apart from the blustery style of his contemporaries, he seduced generations of fans and fellow musicians with a sound that was smooth, relaxed and even-flowing. His tone was perfectly suited for slow ballads, and yet he handled uptempo swing numbers with ease. His influence on the evolution of jazz – not just among horn players but across the entire spectrum of voices – is immeasurable. “You listen to him,” Billie Holiday once said, “and you can almost hear the words.”

The Concord Music Group, home to one of the largest jazz catalogs in the world, celebrates the legacy of Lester Young with the August 4, 2009, release of Lester Young: Centennial Celebration. The ten-track compilation of some of Young’s finest moments on record is the latest installment in CMG’s ongoing Centennial Celebration series, which honors the 100th birthdays of some of the most iconic and influential figures in jazz history.

“This collection celebrates the mature Lester Young of the 1950s, a reminder of a time when he would blow into town for a week performing with a local rhythm section, or for a one-night appearance as part of an all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic tour,” says music historian and journalist Ashley Kahn, author of the liner notes for each of the releases in the Centennial Celebration series. “A time when his powers of eloquence and subtlety remained undiminished, while his tone had developed a mature – one could say darker – edge.”

Compiled and produced by Nick Phillips, Concord Music Group’s Vice President of Jazz and Catalog A&R, Lester Young: Centennial Celebration draws primarily from recordings made in December 1956, during Young’s week-long run at Olivia Davis’ Patio Lounge in Washington, DC. He is accompanied in these first seven tracks by the Bill Potts Trio, the house band at the Patio Lounge: pianist Bill Potts, bassist Norman Williams and drummer Jim Lucht. All three were in their mid-twenties at the time, and thrilled to be accompanying the 47-year-old master in residence (Potts called the gig “our six-night labor of love.”)

The final three tracks in the collection – “Undecided,” “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Lester Leaps In” – are taken from the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours of the early ’50s. Kahn writes: “Produced by Norman Granz with a penchant for teaming up older swing-era veterans with more modern jazz and/or R&B-inspired players, the JATP traveling jam sessions proved on a nightly basis that jazz was essentially jazz, and that all great improvisers spoke the same language.”

Even during his lifetime, Lester Young’s approach had become highly imitated in jazz – by such luminaries as Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and John Coltrane. A half-century after his passing in March 1959, his sound continues to cast its influence far and wide. “It is one of the most recognizable of the jazz tradition,” says Kahn, “one part of the primer every creative musician should hear and must acknowledge. On the centenary of his birth, Young is deserving of top praise not only for the enduring template he created, but for maintaining a singular voice when others would have him be someone he was not.”

1) “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”
2) “Tea For Two”
3) “I Can’t Get Started”
4) “Pennies From Heaven”
5) “I’m Confessin'”
6) “Oh Lady, Be Good”
7) “Just You, Just Me”
8) “Undecided”
9) “I Cover The Waterfront”
10) “Lester Leaps In”