On October 16, 1957, one of the great studio sessions of the decade took place in Capitol’s famous studios in Hollywood. The brilliant tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins spent much of the day and evening in the studios recording two separate albums with producer Norman Granz for Verve Records: The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins and Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster.
The 52-year-old Hawkins was there, working with pianist Oscar Peterson’s regular trio of Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and drummer Alvin Stoller. The musicians recorded twelve songs that were released in the aptly named The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins.
Among the standouts from the session of standards are Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” and “My Melancholy Baby” that have Hawk in fine form that leaves you feeling all warm inside and a smile on your face. There may be one too many slow numbers on this album, but the relaxed feel is one of its strengths — the kind of album to play someone who is not sure if they’re too keen on jazz.
Miles Davis once said, “When I heard Hawk, I learned to play ballads.” Listen to The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins and you will understand what he was getting at.
By the evening, Hawk and the other musicians were joined by 48-year-old Ben Webster, and the result was Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. It’s a jazz masterclass. All seven numbers are standards, but this is no mere run through of tried and tested songs — these are some of the most beautiful versions of these songs ever committed to vinyl.
“Blues for Yolande” has the two tenor players battling it out on a shuffle with Hawkins screaming through his horn, while Webster is more plaintive in response. The record includes some of the most beautiful ballad-playing of their long and fruitful careers, including “It Never Entered My Mind” and “Prisoner of Love.” Hawkins is the gruffer of the two, while Webster floats in such a beguiling way.
“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” swings hard, and it’s almost impossible not to tap your feet while listening, which also shows why Peterson’s trio was so in demand as accompanists. They are ever-present, providing the perfect platform for two jazz giants to weave the magic around.
This relaxed, sensitive masterpiece is full of lyricism and warmth, both features that are to be found all too rarely in modern jazz with the emphasis can be on harmony and complexity. Hawkins & Webster prove that they are masters of their craft and giants of the tenor saxophone.
If The Genius Of Coleman Hawkins was the hors d’oeuvre, then Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster is the main course — and one that should be in every jazz lover’s collection.