PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

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5 responses to “PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

  1. If anyone tries to tell me that Teddy Wilson isn’t one of the greatest jazz pianists in history, I will challenge them to a cage fight and I will win. When I was getting into jazz, one of the first players my dad got me into was Teddy Wilson. Dad also took me to hear and meet Mr. Wilson for my first jazz concert. It was 1983, and I have the autographed album to prove it. Thank you!

  2. John Trudinger

    Bravo Michael. Having just finished listening to all 7 CDs, I completely endorse your review.

  3. Brother Michael, this is one of your best reviews, and Teddy Wilson and his associates deserve every bit of your praise.

  4. Peter Nevraumont

    Sweet. PNN

  5. Great review. I’ve always heard the greatness in the elegance of Teddy Wilson.

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