Sixty years ago – A Masterpiece





On September 11, 1956, Ben Webster - together with Art Tatum, Red Callender and Bill Douglas - recorded the eighth and final album in a series Norman Granz produced with Tatum and different horn soloists that came to be called The Tatum Group Masterpieces.

Tatum and Webster knew each other through many years of playing at private parties. Webster - who played piano for silent movies and was a fine stride player in his youth – had the highest respect for Tatum and considered him the greatest jazz musician of all time. He was therefore very humble when he came to the recording session in Los Angeles.


The Session


The result of this meeting has come to be called one of the great masterpieces in jazz, and the chemistry and mutual inspiration between the two musicians is quite obvious to today’s listener. Ben Webster was both proud and happy about the project, but he was quite anxious before the date. ”Because,” as he said later, “to play with Tatum, the first thing that pops up in your mind is: What in the world can you play? So that’s why I more or less stuck to the melody. Tatum suggested some tunes, I agreed, and we worked out a list quite easily. And we just played. My nerves soon settled down. Art played for me, and I haven’t heard Art play for anybody like he did for me on that date. I’ve never heard that. I’m so glad I knew the man.”


Webster’s scrupulously formulated, simple lines fit like hand in glove with Tatum’s dazzling, strongly ornamented style. There is a fine, relaxed feeling throughout the session. Webster does not “do battle” with Tatum, and the pianist doesn’t “bulldoze” Webster as he does on some of the other sessions with Roy Eldridge or Benny Carter, for example. Instead he supports Webster, often rounding off their musical dialogue. All the tunes move at an easy tempo. Webster once said: “Remember: In jazz there are three tempi: Slow, medium and slow!” Which is quite fitting for the music here, while also reducing the risk of Webster being intimidated by Tatum’s superior technique.


The Music


On All The Things You Are, which is presented in a slow-medium tempo - far slower than how Jerome Kern’s beautiful melody is normally performed – Tatum conjures his way through the first chorus with all the harmonic ingenuity he can muster, after which Webster plays two choruses where he basically sticks to the theme in the first, with few embellishments, then improvises with balanced and calm phrasing in the second, employing his big, broad, warm sound throughout. After a brief piano intro, Webster delivers an incredibly beautiful interpretation of My One And Only Love. He displays such great fervor that, in his hands, the number becomes an unabashed declaration of love, stated with a tone that in the high register attains as much of a singing quality as he can possibly muster. The same can be said of My Ideal, where his use of dynamics also contributes to the warmth of his interpretation. On Gone With The Wind and Have You Met Miss Jones?, Webster sticks close to the themes, while Night And Day swings along persistently and self-confidently, with Webster in full control. On Where Or When - which actually is another take of  Gone With The Wind - Webster again keeps to only a slight variation of the melody and then delivers a dazzlingly beautiful finale to this session, ascending step by step to the keynote in the highest register while again displaying his warm, fat tone and perfect intonation.


Art Tatum died less than two months later, and Ben attended the funeral on the 10th of November at North Neighborhood Community Church in Los Angeles. After the ceremony, Webster lingered at Tatum’s grave along with some other musicians and bid him a last farewell by playing for him privately, with no audience.

Frank Büchmann-Møller

Translated from the Danish by Steve Schein


The Album can be found here:  Click here

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