WE’RE TALKING ABOUT the most poised, the most elegant of jazz pianists. It’s no surprise that Teddy Wilson trained in classical music at first – the mighty influence of Bach alone has been acknowledged by keyboard wizards ranging from Fats Waller to Keith Jarrett, with a significant stop at Bill Evans. The influence shows in Wilson’s technical facility, of course, but there also is evidence in his harmonic language and in the construction of his solos, which build with a rare combination of logic, inevitability, and surprise.
The 21-year-old Wilson hit the recording studio for the first time in October 1933 for a couple of sessions with Benny Carter; the following May he cut four sides with a Goodman ensemble, and a week later recorded his first solo sides, which is where the Mosaic collection begins. Although new to recordings, he’d been performing long enough to have the beginnings of a distinctive style in place.
As Loren Schoenberg’s excellent session-by-session analysis points out, it’s a showier Wilson at the keyboard then we soon would come to know, and we can follow the progress of one number, “Liza,” throughout a couple of subsequent sessions.
Right out of the gate, he gives the bouncy Gershwin tune a solid stride statement, before offering subtle harmonic shifts in the second chorus. We’re hearing Wilson’s trademark chromatics in chorus three, before the next one breaks into the virtuosic runs he’ll be known for. His left hand isn’t straying much from stride at this point, but a year later he re-recorded “Liza” as a solo and each of his hands has more of a mind of its own, especially in the opening statement. He gets into an Earl Hines-ish groove by the fourth chorus (Hines was a huge influence), although I’m also hearing some Jess Stacey here.
When Wilson calls on “Liza” later in this collection – in 1939 – he was leading his own band, but in this particular cut they give him plenty of room. A propulsive brass intro leaves a light, fleet, solo first chorus in its wake, and then the band trades fours, each legato band statement answered by high-energy piano. Two spidery hands explore the keyboard for the fourth, very chromatic chorus, and they group finishes the piece with spikier traded fours.
But Wilson’s brilliant development as one of the greatest of jazz pianists isn’t really evidenced here, because he hit the bench pretty fully formed. His progress was more of a taking-away, a refining of his prodigious technique to create a musical architecture as profound in its simplicity as it was with all the filagree applied. (I’m impressed and amused that Schoenberg likens Wilson’s flurry of notes to the compositions of Conlon Nancarrow, who achieved his own seeming virtuosity by punching holes in player-piano rolls. It’s a good comparison.)
Wilson crafted single-line phrases with the harmonic richness of a Bach statement. Take “Coquette,” from a 1937 small-group session with Goodman and Gene Krupa and Harry James, among others. James leads the ensemble in an opening chorus, then delivers it to Wilson, who in utter contrast sprinkles out a dancing line over the lightest of left-hand accompaniment – which nicely sets up Goodman’s charming solo. (And there are two takes to compare, showing that this was no accident.)
It should be no surprise that he backed vocalists other than Holiday with similar dynamicism and ease. We have as evidence eighteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s second recording session, in 1936, with a Wilson-fronted band, wherefrom “My Melancholy Baby” and “All My Life” swing with an assurance reminding us that, like Wilson, Ella arrived on the scene fairly fully formed. And even lesser-known singers like Midge Williams, Boots Castle, and Frances Hunt get sympathetic support.
Wilson and Krupa were part of the Benny Goodman Trio, the bandleader’s commendable effort to break down racial barriers, further enhanced when Lionel Hampton made it a quartet. Their Victor recordings aren’t hard to find, but the Mosaic set includes an elusive Brunswick session that adds four more Goodman band members as well as vocalist Helen Ward, who is always a delight to hear – and who returns for a 1937 session that includes Harry James and Johnny Hodges and for a couple of 1940 numbers with a group including Jimmy Hamilton.
Hodges and Wilson complement one another superbly on session after session, a reminder that Hodges had a vital presence even outside of the Ellington orchestra. They backed Billie Holiday on a few Wilson-led sessions that included instrumental numbers that don’t make it into the Holiday sets – but here they are (“Sugar Plum,” “Why Do I Lie To Myself About You,” and “Fine and Dandy”), along with a few other orphaned instrumentals with other players.
While there are plenty of Wilson solo sessions along the way, the set features a kaleidoscope of top players cycling through the various ensembles that recorded under Wilson’s name. Goodman appears in a few of the earlier sessions, and there are wonderful quartet sessions with James, Red Norvo, and John Simmons. As Wilson eased away from the Goodman fold, he fronted his own big band, and those once hard-to-find sessions feature players like Ben Webster, Doc Cheatham, and ex-Fats Waller-ites Rudy Powell and Al Casey. Especially significant are the arrangements by Edgar Sampson and Buster Harding – it doesn’t get much better.
Mosaic strives for completeness within whatever framework they’ve devised, which calls for any alternate takes that can be found. The more recent sets put those alternates at the end of a CD, but there’s a pair of solo and trio sessions here, recorded in 1941, engineered by the legendary Bill Savory, in which we have masters and alternates galore of “Rosetta,” “I Surrender Dear,” “ I Can’t Get Started,” and others. Quite properly, they’re presented here in sequence for the fascinating experience of witnessing the development of each of those tunes. (And we’ll be hearing more of Savory’s work in a forthcoming Mosaic set.)
Wilson is no stranger to the Mosaic vaults, appearing in a couple of mid-30s sessions on the Classic Columbia and Victor Chu Berry set (MD7-236), two 1950 trio sessions on the Columbia Jazz Piano Moods Sessions (MD7-199), and, most satisfyingly, on a five-disc set containing all of his 1952-57 trio sessions (The Complete Verve Recordings of the Teddy Wilson Trio, MD5-173). But they’re all out of print. This one is new, it’s hot, it fills holes you didn’t even know you had in your collection. And it’s as enjoyable as they come.
Classic Brunswick and Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-42
Mosaic Records MD7-265