BEN WEBSTER See You At The Fair (Analogue Productions)
This 1964 recording is delicious in just about every sense of the word, not a foregone conclusion given that my only previous exposure to Ben Webster’s work was the soporific (and not in a good way) album he made with Gerry Mulligan. The title track is inspired by the contemporaneous New York World’s Fair, but it’s no lazy gimmick; rather, its cheeky, insouciant, offbeat snap is a pretty darn irresistible way to open an album, peppered with erudite and swinging solos all round.
The core of the album consists of concise yet lyrical interpretations of standards – including “Over The Rainbow”, “Our Love Is Here To Stay”, “Stardust” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” - that, unusually in jazz, remain within sight of their source material at all times. I’m no Duke Ellington fan, but Webster’s interpretation of “In A Mellow Tone” might be enough to turn me into one: simple, memorable and swinging, it’s given extra bristly life by the almost bawdy tenor of Ben’s tenor sax. Elsewhere, the frankly unlikely sound of jazz harpsichord gives “Lullaby Of Jazzland” and “When We’re Dancing” the appearance of something from the soundtrack of a mid-60s European political thriller.
Bursting with variety and invention, you’ll never be bored with “See You At The Fair”; it doesn’t stay in the same place long enough. It might not be the kind of old familiar name release usually recommended to those getting into jazz, but I for one wish I’d heard it years ago. I’ve got Webster’s even more highly rated “Soulville” on order; could it be even better?
Another of Analogue Productions’ coveted 45rpm reissues, the sonics of “See You At The Fair” are just jawdropping. Webster sounds full-blooded and guttural throughout, and it’s a deeply satisfying listen overall. The presentation is much improved upon that of the Benny Carter album moaned about elsewhere, the album arriving in a stout and glossy gatefold sleeve rather more in keeping with its not inconsiderable price tag.
BEN WEBSTER Soulville (Speakers Corner)
Languid and relaxed almost to the neighbourhood of soporific, 1957 date “Soulville” cleaves closer to the tenor player’s work with Gerry Mulligan than to the stereotype-shattering exuberance of his later album “See You At The Fair”. The mood is set by an opening pair of rather flavourless Webster originals, but when the group turn their languid, relaxed talents to languid, relaxed ballads standards such as “Time On My Hands” and “Makin’ Whoopee” the excitement levels rise, paradoxically. Despite backing by Oscar Peterson’s trio, the accompanists are unobtrusive to the point of inaudibility; it’s really only Webster that the listener pays any attention to.
To some extent, though, it might be ungrateful to ask for more in the way of melodic forcefulness because, at least in the form of Speakers Corner’s scrummy reissue, “Soulville“ has what must be the most immersive, sensurround sound I’ve ever heard from a mono recording. I have no idea how it’s achieved – maybe it’s just down to producer Norman Granz soundly applying the best practices of the day – but even compared with Speakers Corner’s excellent Jimmy Smith reissue, this record inches a little further through the veil separating listener and performance. Maybe, just maybe, there might be a little more of a rough, reedy sound from Webster’s instrument than might be preferred, but that’s the price paid for goosebump moments such as his opening waterfall of notes on “Where Are You?”. It might not be to my taste musically, but this “Soulville” is still a remarkable listen. “A panoramic true high fidelity record”, reads the contemporary hype on the cover. Never a truer word.