Ben Webster & Associates
I’m tempted to leave it at that. Does anything more really need to be said?
The album’s highlights are the ballads: Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” which takes up the entire first side, and Styne & Cohn’s “Time After Time.” The first thing that strikes you is Webster’s tone: at once sweet and muscular, limber and weighty. The next is how much these guys can swing while playing so slow. Ray Brown sometimes lags behind with his bass line, yet in a way that heightens the swing, or maybe he’s just sharpening it with tension. (Many bass players who came through Duke’s band, as Brown did, developed this knack.)
Like many Verve albums of the day, the jacket doesn’t credit the engineer, but the sound is both creamy and sharp. That is, you hear the syrupy smoothness of the saxophones but also the bright brass of the trumpet and the all the smacks and sizzle of the drumkit.
It’s not quite as marvelous, musically or sonically, as a similar album put out by Columbia three years later, Ben Webster & “Sweets” Edison, remastered by Mike Hobson’s Classic Records. But it’s right up there.
Ben Webster and Associates also sports an eye-popping historical artifact in the liner notes, written by Leonard Feather, one of the top (if establishmentarian) jazz critics of the day. Toward the end of the notes, he writes:
“After listening to this album, I made a mental note to send a copy…to a young tenor player whom I heard at Birdland the other evening. He was making up to 32 notes per measure with a stovepipe tone, absolutely no relationship to the harmonic structure of the pieces…and a complete rejection of emotion coupled with an evident desire to implant out-and-out ugliness as the mood of the moment… If he were willing to learn, he could gain more out of a study of eight measures of Ben, or Bean, or Budd, than I gained from eight minutes of listening to his tortured mind at work.”
Feather, of course, was referring to John Coltrane—and in 1959, two years before Trane and his sideman Eric Dolpy truly shocked the jazz world at the Village Vanguard. Trane circa ’59 is now regarded as mainstream modern jazz at its peak—and accessible besides. The culture wars, it seems, have always been with us, in one guise or another. The lesson of this album, in the greatness of the music and the crankiness of the liner notes, is that quality tends to win out and both poles converge. Ben Webster and Associates and Giant Steps are both great albums. For the Leonard Feathers of the world, it only takes a little time to figure that out.