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FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

Lester Young The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions (Verve)

When Lester Young made history as Count Basie's tenor saxophonist in the 1930s, he was recognized as one of the greatest and unique tenors of the pre-bop era. While many players favored a heavier sound in the Coleman Hawkins style, Young's dry, brittle tone and his smoothly flowing melodies were a style apart.He added memorable solos to dozens of swinging Basie hits, then his career screeched to a halt in the 1940s when he spent a disastrous year in the Army. He injured himself during training, was busted for drugs, and spent a harsh year in an Army jail. When Young was released in 1945, he was in extremely poor physical and emotional shape, and was heading down the road to an alcoholic death. He seemed, personally and artistically, to be but a shell of his former self.

Despite these problems, producer Norman Granz decided that Pres (as he was known ever since his longtime friend Billie Holiday dubbed him "the President") still had the chops, and signed him to Verve in 1946. This professional relationship would continue over scores of sessions, ending a few weeks before Young's death in 1959.

This eight-CD set includes all of Young's studio work for Granz, along with two interesting interviews. An informative booklet includes an excellent biography of Young by John Chilton, complete discographical information, short bios of the sidemen, and a "Hipsters Dictionary" of Young's expressive slang. This last item reflects Pres' reputation for cool talk and snazzy attire -- indeed, his signature headgear was immortalized by Charles Mingus in "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," his moving threnody for Young.

Conventional jazz wisdom is often quick to dismiss Young's post-WWII material as the work of a burned-out former legend. While Young's Basie sides from the 1930s are unparalleled in jazz for their savvy, swinging brilliance, this new Verve collection draws attention to the fact that Pres could still play a crisp, succinct, and swinging solo after his tragic Army stint, and could easily melt your heart with a shimmering ballad. He wasn't always consistent, but when he was on the mark, he played wonderfully.

Opening with a dazzling trio session with pianist Nat "King" Cole and drummer Buddy Rich (before Cole's days as a vocalist, when he was "merely" a gifted pianist), these sessions include a number of quartet and quintet dates with such stars as pianists John Lewis, Teddy Wilson, and Oscar Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, and trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Roy Eldridge. The settings are comfortable and relaxed.

As mentioned, Young's playing in his later years was inconsistent, and a number of cuts seem ridiculous (such as his singing on "Two to Tango" and a couple of tunes where he plays clarinet). Others are merely lackluster, as he seems simply to go through the motions. While a handful of selections such as these fail to inspire, the overwhelming majority of the tunes on this expansive set easily rank as good to excellent. Sparks frequently fly during Young's pairings with Eldridge and Edison, while his playing burns with an aching, earthy grandeur on many of the slower numbers. While not batting .1000, the master still had plenty of creativity and fire left in his final years, even as he was slipping toward a tragic and premature drink-laden death. -- Gene Hyde

Ani DiFranco To the Teeth (Righteous Babe)

Ani Difranco's greatest strength is also her most obvious weakness -- the folk-punk icon is gawky, over-emotive, PBS dull, and Cosby Show corny. She's also honest, real, open, and completely guileless in her willingness to reveal herself on record, warts and all. Her musical personality can be alternately grating and engaging. But her greatest asset as a singer-songwriter may be her ability to be confessional without being solipsistic -- her insistence on uniting her private feelings with her public commitment. In other words, it's easy to be charmed by her very humane way of making the personal political, and vice versa.

I denied those charms for a while, but sometime in the last few years my grudging respect but aesthetic annoyance turned to honest admiration. This personal conversion culminated with "Fuel" from DiFranco's 1998 album Little Plastic Castle. It's still one of the most thrilling political pop/folk songs I've ever heard, simultaneously conversational and visionary, rooted in everyday decisions and global conditions.

The two political showcases on To the Teeth are ordinary by comparison. The title track, a post-Littleton rumination on our "cultural death wish," is, in true Ani fashion, a mishmash of pointed comments about class and money, and clunky calls to arms ("Open fire on Hollywood/Open fire on MTV"). "Hello Birmingham," a meditation on the murder of abortion doctors in that city and DiFranco's hometown of Buffalo, fares better. Far from poetic, DiFranco's political speech is direct, blunt, confused, concerned, sometimes trenchant and sometimes knee-jerk. Like her more apolitical mall-culture doppelgänger, Alanis Morissette, she might not have it all figured out just yet, but her exploration has its occasional inspirational charms.

I won't pretend to have actually heard more than a third of the 14 albums DiFranco's churned out since 1990 (To the Teeth was her third release of 1999) -- she's a cult artist and I'm not part of the cult. For many, DiFranco provides a soundtrack to their lives, and how they'll take this record, I don't know. But those who've learned to get off on her music as a soundtrack to someone else's life -- pop music as cultural anthropology -- shouldn't be disappointed. And I especially like the one where she hangs out at the airport all day. -- Chris Herrington

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