Ben Webster & Associates

Ben Webster and Associates is one of the loveliest albums put out in the past couple years by Speakers Corner Records, the German-based audiophile reissue house. (Its LPs are distributed in the U.S. by Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds.) Recorded in 1959 on the Verve label, it features Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Budd Johnson on tenor saxophones; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmy Jones, piano; Leslie Spann, guitar; Jo Jones, drums.

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.

Mark in SJ's picture

Fred:Thank you, thank you, thank you for keeping the jazz fires burning. I so appreciate your passion for this incredible art form and for bringing insights, anecdotes and recommendations to those of us who love the music but don't always have the ability to get to concerts or unearth treasures new and old. I am fortunate to have Rasputin Records nearby (they carry vinyl God bless 'em) - I'm off to plumb the depths of the Webster section now...Keep writing, we'll keep reading and supporting - you and the music.

Mark's picture

Ray Brown didn't come through Duke's band, though he did make a magnificent duo recording with him in 1972. Another great big band- that of Dizzy Gillespie- helped to put Ray on the map (Leonard Feather is not here to defend himself I'm and nI am not here to defend hinm, but he'd have gotten that one right). The culture wars are still with us, indeed, if a blog entry about a classic recording must include an attack on the sensibilities of a deceased jazz writer. Weird, to me...

charlesp's picture

I don't think that Fred's column is an "attack" on Mr. Feather - he merely quoted his liner notes and pointed out how critical consensus changes with the cutting edge becoming mainstream - to modern ears, the question can be "what was all the fuss about" - whether we are talking about Monk, Coltrane or Ornette. Just to clarify, here is an attack - Leonard Feather was an unenlightened and self-aggrandizing jazz critic.

Mark's picture

Mr Feather might have been all of those things (unenlightened, self - aggrandizing- but shit, Billie Holliday liked him enough to record his songs), , and the fact that critical consensus changes when the cutting edge becomes mainstream is also a given- no great insight there. But it is funny to me to read about Ray Brown coming up in a band which he did not come up in, then this stuff about where he placed the beat because he came up through Duke's band. And when was that?- please. Talk to any musician and they are telling you that Ray is on top of the beat. And yeah, I know that song, that record- quite well. Anyhow, to me "unenlightened" = the topical post, with the caveat ( allow me, please) that I have the utmost respect for Mr Kaplan and what he really writes about in the political blogs and papers

jrmandude's picture

Dead, establishment, or the fairy god mother, if Feather thought Coltrane was rejecting emotion and unwilling to learn ... while I don't want to offend anyone.Speaking of ignorance, can versions of these records on the silver digit disks be recommended?