[11 October 2009]
In the early 1940s, there were two ways of playing saxophone: like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young. The subject of Centennial Celebration, Young—or “Pres”, as he was dubbed—once said, “A musician should know the lyrics of the songs he plays. That completes it.” The original hipster backed up his words with a rock-solid foundation built on some of the most invigorating and heavenly playing, heard clearly on this 10-track sampler of various sessions culled from the early-to-mid 1950s with a formidable cast of players: trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Max Roach, pianist Oscar Peterson, and guitarist Herb Ellis.
A well-balanced disc, Centennial Celebration highlights the stylistic range which Young mastered effortlessly from the blues and swing of opener “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” to “Oh Lady, Be Good” to “Undecided” and “Lester Leaps In”. All of which are delivered at breakneck pace. Tender ballads “I Can’t Get Started” and “I Cover the Waterfront” showcase Young’s achingly beautiful and highly lyrical playing. Although it focuses exclusively on his small-ensemble work during postwar years, Centennial Celebration still provides an immensely enjoyable summary of all there is to love about Lester Young: his blissful tone, his superb phrasing, and his seemingly endless open channel of improvisational ideas. It’s no wonder why Young earned his nickname from contemporary Billie Holiday, as his commanding authority of the tenor saxophone knew no equal, and he ushered in an entirely new approach to the instrument, one this disc should have new and curious listeners craving more and serving as a first-rate reminder to die-hard fans of his genius.