Sunday, April 2, 2017

Pee Wee Russell Plays Pee Wee


A lovely album, with a lovely cover, in lovely condition, found in a Savannah junk store a couple of decades ago. Clarinetist Charles Ellsworth "Pee Wee" Russell (1906-1969) was often typecast as a strictly dixieland player, but he was in fact one of the most interesting improvisers in jazz - his music was almost always unusually inventive. Pee had a sound that alternated between vulnerable fragility and growling aggressiveness. He was not possessed of a virtuoso technique, so his music depended almost totally on his unique musical imagination. To borrow Lester Young's phrase, a Pee Wee's solo will always "tell a story" - a story with unusual twists and turns, told with Russell's very personal voice.

Pee Wee Plays Pee Wee was issued in 1957 on Ster-O-Craft, one of the earliest labels to specialize in the then brand-new stereo technology. Recording quality is excellent, although these days we would not have the clarinet panned so far to one side. Russell is accompanied by a sympathetic, swinging rhythm section - Basie acolyte Nat Pierce on piano, the underrated veteran Steve Jordan on guitar, bassist Walter Page, and drummer George Wettling. The title seems to imply a program of Russell originals, but that's not the case. Pee Wee only wrote a couple of the tunes here; the rest are "Great American Songbook" standards. Here's one of those standards, Pee Wee's delicately off-center rendition of "Over the Rainbow" Ironically, the YouTube video is in mono sound, rather than stereo. You get what you pay for, I guess.

                                  

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