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The Jazz Saxophones of 1201 Music-are Albert Ayler’s Witches and Devils, Ben Webster’s Stormy Weather and Dexter Gordon’s Body and Soul

By Brian L. Knight

New Jersey’s 1201 Music has purged the vaults of the famed record label, Black Lion and resurrected some recorded gems from jazz’s past. Through 24 Bit Remastering, 1201 Music has made these recordings sound like they were done yesterday. 1201 has brought out great recordings by Miles Davis, Slide Hampton, Stephane Grappelli and Sun Ra. A few of the classic recordings are Albert Ayler’s Witches and Devils, Ben Webster’s Stormy Weather and Dexter Gordon’s Body and Soul. By looking at these three recordings, we not only get a look at the 1201 catalog but also four of jazz’s most notable saxophonists.

 

During his brief life as a musician, Ayler managed to shake the jazz foundations loose. Ayler’s free jazz blowing was criticized by musicians, fans and critics as lacking true musical identity. Bechet was able to walk the vibrato fine line as he solos were able to keep within a song’s structure. Ayler’s soloing left the song structure in the dust. During the winter of 1964, Ayler took trumpeter Norman Howard, bassists Henry Grimes and Earle Henderson and drummer Sonny Murray into a New York studio to record Witches and Devils. Despite the criticisms, Ayler’s playing possessed both passion and melody. His solos started from a base minimum and then developed slowly as Ayler explored different saxophone timbres. By a song’s end (in which there are four loosely structured songs on Witches and Devils), one feels like they have shared a moment with Ayler. His unorthodox free playing not only allowed for Ayler to freely explore music boundaries, but also allowed the listener to freely explore the mind of Ayler. For instance the title track is slow tempoed and calm which allows for introspection while the second number, "Spirits", is a fast paced frenetic session in which each band member follows their own prescribed chaotic line. This music was non-conformist yet breathtaking over 35 years ago and it still possesses those same characteristics today.

Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster were two saxophonists who made a huge impact on the American jazz scene early in their careers and then retreated to Europe. 1201 Music has released two CDs recorded at Copenhagen’s Montmartre Jazzhuis that capture both saxophonists during their European phases. Ben Webster spent most of the 1930s-1960s playing with the bands of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson as well as fronting his own small groups. In 1964, when he lost the last of his closest relatives, Webster moved to Denmark where he continued to blow hard for the last nine years of his life. For this 1964 date, which was recorded within a month of Webster’s arrival in Denmark, the saxophone veteran was backed by pianist Kenny Drew, drummer Alex Riel and bassist Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson. For this jammed packed set, Webster and company primarily work through traditional songs such as the bluesy title track, "Mack the Knife" and "the Theme", which was originally recorded by Miles Davis. The Bluesy original "Friskin’ the Frog" was a somewhat an autobiographical tune as Webster was nicknamed "the frog" by Jimmy Blanton when they were both in Duke Ellington’s band.

Dexter Gordon, also known as the Hawk, burst into the scene during the late 1940s and early 1950s while working with Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet and Fletcher Henderson. During these years, he was revered as the successor to the saxophone thrones held by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Between 1962 and 1976, Gordon moved across the Atlantic Ocean and called Paris is home. The latest 1201 release, Body and Soul, was recorded at the Montmartre Jazzhuis in Copenhagen during the summer of 1967. Interesting enough, two musicians from the Webster date pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson also back up Gordon. Drummer Albert Heath is the extra addition to the lineup. The opening "Like Someone In Love" immediately has Gordon showing his blowing prowess as he takes the mid tempo traditional song to its limits. The twelve minute song introduction allows for each member ample of time and room to let loose. "Come Rain or Come Shine" was again has Gordon exploring every possible range and register available to his saxophone. Standing over six feet in height, Gordon most likely had good reserve air pockets in his body to draw from. The title track is a tipping of the hat to Gordon’s predecessor, Coleman Hawkins, who first recorded the track in 1939. The set ends with "Blues Walk" which was recorded by Lou Donaldson nine years earlier. Both of these live dates once again show that, despite the changes that jazz was experiencing in the late 1960s, many musicians were keeping the tradition of be-bop/hard bop alive and well in the age of "Hey Joe" and "Light My Fire".

Witches and Devils, Stormy Monday and Body and Soul are just a few of the many releases available through 1201 Music. Also check out trombonist Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones. This 1979 recording is ensemble effort that features the work of nine different trombonists (including a young Steve Turre). In addition, there is also Miles Davis’ Boppin’ The Blues which is an incredible document of Davis while he was in California during the late 1940s. Davis followed his mentor, Charlie Parker, out to the West Coast, but upon their arrival, Parker became sick. As a result, Davis joined up with Billy Eckstine’s big band. This recording is a recording session done with a select group of Eckstine’ band. It features vocals by Earl Coleman and Ann Baker and a supporting band of Gene Ammons and Art Blakey. An interesting look at the trumpeter at his earliest stages. Check out these releases and many, many more at www.1201music.com.