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Liner Notes: Ben Webster - Verve

There is something about the tenor saxophone that makes it in most people's minds the definitive jazz instrument. It could be the register, which is in the same range as the male voice. There is also the saxophone's ability to mimic the inflections of speech. It could also be the breathy tone that many saxophonists have cultivated, making it sound like someone whispering breathlessly in your ear. No one explored the intimate potential of the saxophone like Ben Webster. By the end of his career in the early 1970s, when his physical condition has deteriorated, Webster could still play the most tender ballads, sometimes putting no more than a little burst of air through the saxophone. Unlike many players who define the parameters of their expressivity and remain there, Webster reveled in running the widest gamut of emotions He remains a potent influence. As the contemporary saxophonist Scott Robinson put it recently: "Ben's got the greatest breadth of probably any saxophonist from a whisper that brings you to tears, to screaming with the equivalent of an electric rock and roll sound on the saxophone."

Ben Webster's evolution from a rough and ready Kansas City stride pianist who accompanied silent movies in Amarillo, Texas into one of the most sensitive and eloquent jazz saxophonists can be traced through the selections in this compilation. Never before have the vaults of as many recording companies been unified under one roof as they are now in the Verve Music group, and it makes this sort of musical biography all the more complete.

Like many children born in the early years of the 20th century, Benjamin Francis Webster's first instrument was the violin. This led to the piano (which remained his first love - hear his solo piano version of "Roses Of Picardy"), and by his late teens, the saxophone. Young Ben gradually integrated the violin's finesse and the piano's harmonic possibilities into his budding saxophone style. After playing in some of Kansas City's hotter bands, Ben came to New York in 1934 in a big way. Fletcher Henderson's band had already been the home of many of jazz's greatest innovators, beginning with Louis Armstrong, and it had also been home for over a decade for tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, who virtually invented the jazz tenor saxophone. It was his style that Ben had copied assiduously while in the mid-west, and Henderson asked Ben to replace Hawkins in 1934 (after a short and unhappy stint by Lester Young, in whose family band Ben had played in 1928). In later years, Webster became friends with his early role model, and "Rosita", from a 1957 duet session is a vivid portrait of both Hawkins and Webster in their maturity. From the mid-'30s on, Ben was a New Yorker, and began to appear as a soloist on a variety of studio sessions. The Ghost of Dinah catches him with some of the top players and innovators of the era, including two who featured Ben in their own big bands: saxophonist/trumpeter Benny Carter and pianist Teddy Wilson.

Ben had long been a fan of the Ellington band, and after subbing occasionally in the 1930s, finally became a full-time member and the band's first tenor saxophone soloist in January, 1940. So much of an emphasis is naturally placed on his solo abilities, that Webster's absolute mastery of ensemble playing is rarely mentioned. There was also his compositional sense, which helped him relate both his written and improvised parts to the piece at hand. Listen for how fits in on "Blues For Mr. Wonderful" - by the '60s, Webster brought a profundity borne of decades of honing his skills that brings to mind the late Olivier or the late Picasso. The slightest gesture could summon depths of association and emotion. The timelessness of his style is also starkly evident as it is juxtaposed against the playing of younger greats such as cornetist Thad Jones and pianist Roger Kellaway. During the 78 era, when records lasted no longer than 3 minutes and change, jazz players had to learn to make coherent and concise solo statements. "Honey Hill" has superb examples of this largely lost skill in a series of inimitable one-chorus blues solos by Vic Dickinson, Webster, Roy Eldridge and Johnny Hodges.

Upon leaving Ellington's band in late 1943, Webster became a leader. One of his greatest collaborations was with the drummer Big Sid Catlett. They brought to the quartet format a sense of form that grew directly out of their big band experience. Hear how they give a relatively informal performance of the 1920s standard "Linger Awhile" shape and substance by varying the level of intensity and using space as a compositional tool. With the exception of brief return to the Ellington fold in the late '40s, Webster remained a leader and occasional all-star sideman for the rest of his career. Producer Norman Granz deserves much credit for recording him prolifically during the 1950s, a fortuitous happening whose results were never nugatory, and frequently sublime. There were reunions with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson, some of the most successful jazz with strings dates (arranged by Ralph Burns), and a series of inspired studio dates with Oscar Peterson and with Gerry Mulligan.

The 1960s turned out to be a tough time for musicians of Webster's generation. Rock and roll made jazz a rare commodity, and even within the jazz world, the veterans from the Swing Era were amongst the least in demand. Ben spent time working with the vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon and picking up the odd jobs in clubs and in the studios. His playing had continued to blossom, and his recordings from the early 1960s are among his best. The pianist Dick Katz and the tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin have both remarked on the sophisticated rhythmic sense Webster had, and how his playing could fit in any musical context with no qualification needed. Unfortunately, these rare attributes didn't translate into work, and like many of his peers, Webster chose not to linger in an unwelcome musical environment. He had always had a strong following in Europe, and spent the last several years of life there. Although the grass didn't turn out to be quite as green as it originally looked, Webster made many warm friendships and was well respected by the European jazz community.

 

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