Lost and found Lester Young at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, transcribed by Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson's Do the Math (DTM) is the one mainly-music blog that I read every word of.  His work as composer and pianist with The Bad Plus, with Billy Hart in the Billy Hart Quartet, and elsewhere, should not be missed. At DTM, he's given us a  transcription (in concert key) of a fabulous Lester Young solo on Tea for Two, from the Savory Collection, a set of over 1000 recordings, privately made by Bill Savory on 78 rpm discs, of radio performances by great jazz musicians during the years 1935-1940.  The collection was acquired in 2010 by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The museum is looking into possibilities for publicly releasing the recordings...for now, note that you can listen to them if you visit the museum.

I've transposed to B flat (and slightly edited, based on the sound file linked below) Iverson's transcription, for the benefit of those tenor players who, like myself, don't yet routinely read stuff like this in concert key; you can get the transposed version here, and it's also displayed at the end of this post.

Iverson calls the solo "utterly brilliant"; and I concur.  For those not heavily into jazz, I'll just say that to me the aesthetic and cultural significance of this is comparable to finding the manuscript of a previously unknown Mozart piano concerto...of the caliber of K488 in A, K491 in Cm, or K503 in C.  

You can hear the second chorus of the two-chorus solo, and other excerpts from the collection, at the New York Times website.  The performance is from November 1938, and the group featured "members of the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands", along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. 

About the performance the Times writers say "Top honors go to Young’s long, free-flowing solo, which is capped by a second chorus that Mr. Schoenberg calls “a wild, spontaneous moment of abandon.” "  (Mr. Schoenberg is Lauren Schoenberg, director of the Museum.)  To me, at least, it seems that the "wild, spontaneous moment of abandon" gives a primary emotional impression of relaxed, unselfconscious joy, a feeling perhaps somewhat rare in later jazz, though characteristic, if perhaps to a less intense degree, of much of Young's greatest work, especially of this period (the late 30s).  Intense striving or yearning, intense sensuality especially of a kind remniscent of eroticism, while they are valuable aspects of many great jazz performances, are mostly absent here;  this is not wild abandon in the sense of holy rollin', freejazz freakout or R&B barwalking, but rather in the sense of a spontaneous breaking out into a dance of joy.  This in part reflects Lester's style of the time, which emphasized grace and poise, relaxation and a degree of restraint even in episodes of blues honking.  (It's not an accident that I chose Mozart in the classical comparison above.)  But I think it also reflects the emotional tenor of Tea for Two itself, which despite being a popular hit at the height of the so-called Jazz Age seems almost nineteenth century in its description of a parlor romance over tea and its joyfully anticipated consummation in marriage and children. Louis Armstrong might be the closest parallel for this kind of uncomplicated joy in early jazz, although Armstrong's joy was often tinged with a bit more explicit triumphalism, his blues with just a tad more raunchiness. But there are definite reminders of Armstrong, or perhaps other trumpet influences (Lester, like Armstrong, loved the playing of Bix Beiderbecke), especially in the ripping measure 41-42 reference to the main Tea for Two theme, the measure 35-36 eighth notes jumping up and down a fourth, before peeling off into a classic Lesterian extended line dropping via turns into descending arpeggios that bounce right back up again, and in the measure 49-51 quarter notes, which come off as an inspiration of the moment (this must be part of what Schoenberg meant by "wild abandon"), and which are a striking contrast to the running-eighth note lines abundant in Young's playing.

Speaking of dancing, the rhythm section, in which guitar rather than piano is the primary audible chorded instrument, lays down a rather implacable but solidly swinging chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of a 4/4 beat, and Lester dances fleetly in and around it, sometimes, especially when referencing the melody of Tea for Two or emphasizing the somewhat heavy-handed half-measure harmonic rhythm of the main strain, almost implying a feeling of 2/4 but always remaining lightfooted. Besides working on playing this solo, I've been analyzing its harmonic implications a bit, but won't discuss that until I've investigated the harmony being played behind Lester beyond merely comparing it with some charts found around the web.

Here's my B flat transposition of Iverson's transcription, done with Iverson's permission but not with his supervision or imprimatur.  I have also edited the second chorus a bit based on what I hear in the sound file from Savory linked at the New York Times site above. Iverson noted that his transcription contains "a couple of tiny wrong notes"; I found almost none in going over the second chorus. The main differences I've noted with Iverson's version are the shake in measure 38, and the fact that I've written out the gliss or rip in measure 41...although the exact notes I've written there should be taken with a grain of salt. (I thought that the parallel with the similar upward jump on the first beat of measure 42, but with a slightly different rhythmic feel compared to the triplet of measure 42 was worth making explicit.) The few places I've put in slurs are more to indicate that those passages are executed almost like a rip or glissando, not that nothing else is slurred.


Billy Hart quartet Live at the Village Vanguard in 2009

Jazz fans should not miss the opportunity to download an mp3 of a 70 minute set by the Billy Hart quartet playing live at the Village Vanguard in New York on Sept. 23, 2009.  I really enjoyed a couple of sets from this run at the Vanguard, possibly including this one.  If I find my listening notes I may post some impressions of the live gig.  Billy Hart, drums, Ethan Iverson, piano, Ben Street, bass, Mark Turner, tenor sax.  Lots of thanks to the group for making this available, and not just as a stream but as a free download.  Reward them by buying one or more of their CDs...I'll post a review when mine arrives.

All four of these guys are fantastic players, with very individual approaches.  They listen to each other and interact a lot, too.  A bit of silly trivia is that I thought Ben Street looked like a dead ringer for House (of the TV show), though he's a bit less so in photos.

Incidentally, Iverson's blog, Do the Math, is essential for jazz fans, especially jazz piano fans.  He is willing to stick his neck out about what he likes and doesn't, the perspective of a player is fascinating and invaluable, and the interviews with musicians (like Keith Jarrett, Jason Moran, Wynton Marsalis...) and others are fantastic and create irreplaceable first-hand anecdotal documentation of parts of jazz's history.