September 2008

Lester Young - The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio
Norgran Records/Speakers Corner MGN-1054
Format: LP
Originally released: 1952
Reissue released: 2007

by Marc Mickelson

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Norman Granz is a figure of great importance in the history of jazz recording. He is best known for founding Clef, Verve and Pablo, all renowned jazz labels. But before those labels gained prominence there was Norgran Records, which was reserved for traditional jazz artists, and they don't get much more traditional than the lineup recorded here. "The President" is, of course, tenor saxophonist Lester Young; pianist Oscar Peterson needs no introduction. Young, a jazz anachronism even in 1952, when this album was recorded, came to prominence in Count Basie's band, but this record shows that he made the transition to the small-ensemble post-swing era easily. Peterson was a brilliant keyboard technician and a pianist with whom everyone wanted to play -- the consummate sympathetic bandmate. Here, his trio consists unusually of guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown (who would also become a popular leader), with J.C Heard sitting in on drums.

The music is conventional fare -- all covers except for "Ad Lib Blues," which is a Young-Peterson collaboration. This is the great jazz era in its larval stage, when swing was morphing into the bop that would dominate into the mid-1950s. This is straight-ahead music -- no challenging progressions or wailing runs, the inclusion of chestnuts such as "Tea for Two" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" ensuring a tasteful pace.

As with the other Speakers Corner LPs I've reviewed, the vinyl here is absolutely topnotch -- as quiet as it gets. The mono sound is neutrally balanced in all ways – neither forward nor distant in perspective, neither warm nor cool tonally. The quality of the vinyl lets you hear deeply into the music and still appreciate analog's enveloping warmth and presence.

While original jazz LPs are gobbled up by collectors, reissues such as this seem all the more sensible: a vintage recording made with the best that contemporary remastering and record production have to offer and available at a price below the cost of an original, which may be in questionable shape -- a win-win-win situation.