Art Tatum (1909-1956) is recognized as one of the best — if not the best — jazz pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. His influence would inspire a generation of jazz pianists who would follow him, including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea among many others who would build upon his legacy.
Tatum played within tight structures, rarely venturing into the wild improvisations that dominated jazz in the second half of the twentieth century. He was also more melodic than many of the artists who would follow him.
His genius lay in his accuracy and timing. At times his playing could be frenetic yet each note is distinguishable from the next. His sound is instantly recognizable by its clarity. He was also a genius at changing chord progressions within the melody of a song. His virtuosity was such that when listening to his recordings, this one included, you will swear there is more than one piano being played.
Art Tatum was primarily a solo artist as the majority of his performances and recorded work featured only his piano. Every once in a while, however, he would assemble a trio or quartet, which brings us to Ben Webster.
Webster was a tenor sax player and contemporary of Tatum. He began his career as a member of The Duke Ellington Orchestra in the mid-thirties and would go on to a stellar career both as a solo artist and as a member of numerous groups until his death in 1972. He was known as a swing artist who fit Tatum’s style perfectly.
Legendary producer and label owner Norman Granz managed to lure Tatum and Webster into the studio together. Backed by Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums, Tatum and Webster recorded all eight tracks that comprise The Album on September 11, 1956. It would be Tatum’s last recording session as he would pass away not long after its completion.
The first track, “All The Things You Are,” sets the tone as Tatum begins with a solo while exploring the song’s structure and theme. Webster then joins in the exploration with his smoky sax sound. While Tatum tends to dominate, Webster’s sax meanders in, out, and around Tatum’s piano to create a dual sound that constantly splits and reunites.
“Gone With The Wind” finds Tatum literally bending the melody with one hand while playing a number of runs with the other. It is an excellent example of his layering technique and creating a two-piano sound. Webster provides a nice counterpoint in support.
Webster would later say that he considered his performance on “Night and Day” one of the best of his career. He assumes more of a dual lead as the purity of his tone wafts over the melody established by Tatum.
There are four bonus tracks which are very interesting. “Gone With The Wind,” “Have You Met Miss Jones,” “Night and Day,” and “Where Or When” are all repeated, but here they are done so with solo performances by Tatum, allowing the listener to compare both versions.
The Album by Ben Webster and Art Tatum is considered one of the best jazz releases of all time. The two geniuses who created this wonderful work are now sadly slipping from the public consciousness. This reissue should restore the luster of their virtuosity and hopefully their popularity as it remains a testament to two of the most influential American jazz musicians of the twentieth century.