I was in the middle of writing an ambivalent review for All About Jazz of the Mosaic reissue of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars 1967 concerts when I stopped. The CD, GEORGE WEIN IS ALIVE AN WELL IN MEXICO, features Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jack Lesberg. It was originally issued on Columbia Records, and Mosaic has added three previously unissued tracks. The slow numbers offer poignant playing from Russell late in his career, with Freeman and Braff in peerless, musing form, Lesberg giving great support. And reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, long may he wave, apologizes for reproducing the dreadfully insulting cover photograph and tells a wonderful story about two of the faux-Mexican banditos, who are doing their best to summon up the spirit of Alfonso Badoya.
But Lamond’s drums pummel the listener, which could be more the fault of the hall and the recording engineer. And all of Wein’s pianistic shortcomings are brilliantly audible — the heavy touch, the clogged phrasing, the repeated formulas, the dragging rhythms.
In the interest of fairness, I took a YouTube break to check myself, to see if I was being unjust to Wein. As an impresario, he has contributed immeasurably to jazz. Imagine if the Newport Jazz Festivals had never existed!
But as a pianist and bandleader?
I found this performance of LADY BE GOOD — from Copenhagen, dated 1974 (although it might be 1969) with Braff, Red Norvo, bassist Larry Ridley, Barney Kessel, Lamond, and Wein.
Wein kicks off a very brisk tempo and all is well, sometimes inspiring, until he solos, perhaps becase Kessel and Ridley’s strong rhythmic pulse keeps the band on track. But Wein then launches complicated figures that he is just-nearly-able to play at this tempo. The solo isn’t disastrous, but it offers evidence to support what I’ve been hearing on records and in person for a long time. Unkind, perhaps; unjust, no. Imagine this band with a young Mark Shane, with Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Hank Jones, or Jimmy Rowles. How they would have flown!
And since there is more to life and to this post than pulling anyone to pieces in public, I encourage vewers to delight in the solos by everyone else in this performance — Norvo’s limber arpeggios, a floating phrase Braff pulls off in his second bridge, Kessel’s bluesy intensity.
Should the philosophical question come up, “Is it better to have this performance, with its flaws, then not?” my answer would be a quick Yes. But it reminds us just how marvelous it is when everyone in an improvising jazz group is emotionally and technically on the same wavelength, and perhaps just how hard it is to accomplish that special creative unity.