Saturday, February 16, 2008

Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster: Verve's Contemporary Tradition

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues Back-to-Back; An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet; Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson; Ben Webster and Associates: no jazz label ever minted the mythos of self importance in album titles quite like the Verve Music Group. Implied in these and so many more Verve releases is something special, unlike anything that has come before, never to be repeated again - album art mirroring posters advertising gigs. How right they were to do so.

Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster: there's something decidedly confrontational to this title. I've always loved the cover especially since it's such a crude and clumsy attempt to make it look like Hawkins and Webster are posing together in a photograph. The beaming smiles on the faces of Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson on the cover of their eponymous Verve summit makes it all too clear they got along swimmingly; the title and cover of this, however, conspire to make me suspect the two tenors didn't exactly dig one another. Still, you'd never guess this by the music, seven exceptionally lovely pieces, their styles meshing to such a degree that it's difficult to tell them apart at times. The novice listener can get lulled into believing there's a lack of individuality to Webster's playing, that he's distinguishable only because he could sound like both Hawkins and Lester Young at the same time (not that I'm such an expert: I often come to recognize Webster when I'm certain I'm not hearing Hawkins or Young). This one is particularly puzzling and I wonder just how much the two were imitating each other: perhaps the heavier, denser playing is being provided by Webster while the lighter, breathier moments come courtesy of Hawkins.

In the piece about The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady I discuss the challenge posed by the album, particularly on jazz's old boys network. Verve took probably the simplest yet most effective approach: to allow its roster of primarily veteran players to record as though they were brief set-lists from one time only gigs.

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