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Ben Webster was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on 27th March, 1909. He died in Amsterdam on 20th September, 1973. In the intervening sixty-four years he crammed a lifetime of music, bringing joy to thousands of listeners all over the world and becoming recognized as one of the true giants of jazz. With his passing, the tradition of the jazz tenor saxophonists suffered a very severe blow, for Ben was in the same class as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Chu Berry, Budd Johnson, Don Byas and a handful of others who helped to elevate Adolphe Sax’s invention to a new plane of acceptance.
Ben spent the last nine years of his life in Europe, mostly basing himself in Denmark where he was a familiar and very popular figure amongst Danish jazz folk. But he was almost equally well-known in other European Jazz centers and he could count on friends wherever he worked. Ian Middleton struck up an instant rapport with Webster and Ben would ring Ian, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, to tell him he had decided to come over to London from Copenhagen and could Ian book him into a hotel in the center of town. A highly emotional man he would get carried away when listening to records by his favorite pianists, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. John Kendall, the manager of the second-hand record department of Dobell’s jazz shop in Charing Cross Road, London, tells how Ben would often negotiate the narrow stairway down to John’s place in order to hear Tatum or Waller. “They didn’t ought to have died,” he would murmur, wiping tears from his eyes as he listened.
Ben’s career has been well-documented in the jazz history books and numerous sleeve notes; indeed the magnitude of his importance may be judged by the fact that it is almost an insult to spell out details of his years with Bennie Moten, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and the many small groups he fronted. Suffice it to say that when the last of his close relatives died in 1964 he decided to sever his connections with the United States and head east across the Atlantic. Over in Europe he found plenty of musical friends, men who had worked with him back home and could provide him with the kind of backing he wanted. His playing mellowed with the passage of the years and he was no longer the enfant terrible likely to sink his teeth in the reed and screech out a rasping phrase like a war-cry to any other soloist who thought fit to appear on the same stand. Always an expert at evaluating the best paraphrase for a melodic line when it came to playing ballads, his work in Europe leaned heavily on the careful and elegant interpretation of the songs he loved.
This album was recorded at the Montmartre Jazzhus in Copenhagen on a Saturday Evening at the end of January, 1965, a few months after Ben had moved to Europe. The term “beatnik” was still in vogue and it was a description which probably fitted a proportion of the young men and girls who came to listen to jazz, sitting at the long refractory tables, drinking beer and gazing across the dim, candle-lit room. Ben had already found a ready-made rhythm section to his liking led by Danish drummer Alex Reil and containing the American pianist Kenny Drew as well as the astonishing, 18 year-old bass player Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson. Nils-Henning had already worked with visitors such as Dextor Gordon, Don Byas and Johnny Griffin and had an even greater compliment paid to him when Count Basie offered him a job in his band.
Alan Bates arranged to record both Ben and the Alternating group that night, the Dollar Brand Trio. Some measure of the empathy existing between Ben and the Alex Riel Trio may be judged from the opening bars of Londonderry Air where Ben seems to float in, suspended in space above the bar line divisions, then drops his opening phrase knowing that Kenny Drew will make any necessary adjustments to absorb the chosen tempo and note placing. Some of the settings will be familiar to students of Webster’s music on record, such as the interpretation of Our Love is Here to Stay and the beautiful reading of My Romance , a song which Ben obviously liked for he played it better than any other musician I have ever heard.
Blues for Herluf is a tribute to the Jazzhus’s Herluf Kamp Larsen and the first set-closer, is one of those functional jazz themes of uncertain source; Miles Davis called it The Theme when he recorded it, while alto saxophonist Frank Morgan settled for Milt’s Tune on a 1955 record date. Kenny Drew, whose playing throughout the album deserves a special tribute, shows a nice regard for tradition on I Can’t Get Started; as Ben eases into the tune Kenny plays the descending-ascending figure used by Don Byas and Trummy Young behind DIzzy Gillespie on the trumpeter’s 1945 recording of Started.
The middle set of the evening opened with a blues in F, sometimes called Friskin’ The Frog (and it was the late Jimmy Blanton who nicknamed Ben “Frog” when they were both in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1940) then comes a superb reading of Stormy Weather played with that unique combination of Strength and delicacy which marked so much of Webster’s work during his European period. (Some nameless enthusiast, sitting close to the band, makes a bid to appear in the jazz reference books and discographies by apparently knocking over a beer glass during Kenny Drew’s solo!) With hardly a break Ben moves into a marvelous Teach Me Tonight, short and precise but containing the very essence of this fine ballad.
This is very much Ben’s record, the fidelity catching the feathering off of the notes as they die away and become simply a vibrating column of air. Music like this is ageless and we should be grateful that this jazz giant made it for us.
BEN WEBSTER (tenor saxophone)
KENNY DREW (piano)
NILS HENNING ORSTED PEDERSON (bass)
ALEX RIEL (drums)
1) OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY (6.28)
2) MY ROMANCE (6.42)
3) BLUES FOR HERLUF (5.23)
4) LONDONDERRY AIR (4.32)
5) MACK THE KNIFE (5.23)
6) I CAN’T GET STARTED (6.40)
7) THE THEME (3.06)
8) FRISKIN’ THE FROG (7.16)
9) STORMY WEATHER (7.21)
10) TEACH ME TONIGHT (2.49)