Friday, February 16, 2007

"I've Found a New Baby" by Lester Young Trio (with Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums), 1946

Download track here (while it lasts).

Without a doubt my favourite piece of instrumental jazz, on par with Billie Holiday's later, rougher version of "Love Me or Leave Me" on Verve. Probably one of my favourite pieces of music, period. I have listened to this one track over and over since first discovering it twelve years ago and it has yet to tire me even slightly. There are so many angles from which I approach listening to it that it's hard to begin with one, but the sensible approach is the obvious one: a tenor saxophone sounds like a human voice, and Lester Young's saxophone sounds like the voice of someone whom you care about very deeply. It's by turns intimate, teasing, rousing, and reassuring, and as such much of this song is like a conversation with someone.

But it's not so much a conversation as it is like listening to someone's thoughts. Maybe your own, maybe someone else's, maybe an archetypal anyone's. Somehow, in barely over four minutes of instrumental music, this track manages to impress upon the listener the sense of the most important emotions and routines of human thought. Transcribing the process of trying to make up its mind, the track progresses through all different levels of reason and emotional reactions thereto. Wonder, care, uncertainty, self-doubt, hope, reticence, confidence, and joy are amply present at various times, as well as less emotional moments of pensiveness, suspicion, reason, and verification. All communicated, of course, through wordless music.

What's astonishing about this track is the monstrous ability of all three of the musicians playing it. Each of the three is unequivocally a master of his instrument, and here all three play freely and wildly together in a manner that--in spite of the brilliant spacing and room all over the track--allows each one of them to be doing something astonishing at all times. Pres, Cole, and Rich spend this track being infinitely interesting, which is why it works so well to communicate so much without really saying anything. If it's an exercise in virtuosity, it's one that displays pure joy in playing (and, in some sense, of living) rather than a practiced digital ability.

The fact that it's so poorly recorded, scratchy and trebly, plays well in its favour too-- the extent that the joy and genius is electrifying in spite of what is clearly not a 100% representation of what the music actually was succeeds in suggesting some mythological quality to the musicians, that in person this would have been somehow beyond human. But the recording is enough-- you can instantly absorb the exuberance of Rich's swift, layered drumming, and the magnificent endowment of Cole's ability to express with a piano what otherwise no one would be able to express at all. All of which is tied naturally together by Lester Young's by turns swaggering, nervous, plaintive, thoughtful, and vivacious stream-of-thought saxophone. But it's not even the sound of a voice anymore-- that saxophone sounds like the taste of butterscotch, or cool water passing over and over through a parched throat. It breathes, it swallows, it thinks, and it talks. This music sounds like being alive.