Thursday, 19 September 2013

Blue Lester

In Penang to see Jackie perform at Short + Sweet Theatre 2013, I phoned journalist-cum-harpist Kim Gooi and asked him to come watch the show at Penang Performing Arts Centre. Kim came down and we talked music of course; blues, blues, and more blues. Kim had the idea to invite guitarist Joe Goh up from KL for one of our epic jams. The Penang Blues Brothers ride again.
The Penang Blues Brothers jump and wail: Joe Goh, Kim Gooi, Ron Ashkin
Joe caught the Katy up from Kuala Lumpur last Friday. I dropped by Kim’s and the three of us spent the afternoon working out on only three tunes – T-Bone Shuffle, Kidney Stew, and Blue Lester – all from the mid-to-late-1940s. I was on a roll a couple of weeks ago in Lagos and transcribed T-Bone Shuffle and Blue Lester from the original records and this was my chance to play them with others.

I particularly have had an ear worm for Blue Lester and I just can’t get that 1944 slow F-blues out of my head, Count Basie on piano backing Lester Young just prior to his military nightmare. I had first admired the tune on Von Freeman’s The Great Divide, where he calls it Blue Pres, and had half-transcribed it at the time – Vonski plays it at an even slower pace than Pres. A few weeks back I pulled up the original on my iTunes and re-discovered 10 choruses of pure bliss – Pres blows two choruses on the head, a single solo chorus, back to the head again, then Basie enters for three and Pres takes it out with three more, not bothering to return to the theme. Freddie Green anchors the proceedings with his steady rhythm guitar. Not a sound wasted. Nobody plays like that these days, when apparently both pianists and saxophonists are paid by the note. I can’t get the theme and Lester’s first solo chorus out of my head. I've transcribed that chorus and find Lester’s note choices deceptively simple, making me feel like I've been over-thinking my own improvisations.
PPAC echoes (literally) with the sound of 1944.

Unfortunately I left my trusty Zoom recorder back in Lagos and couldn't catch our version on tape. But on Saturday night, the three of us were invited to play for the cast party after Short + Sweet closed and we had a chance to perform Blue Lester in public for the first time. The tempo was set a bit fast and a young crowd more attuned to hip-hop got up and danced. Lester Young’s 16 bars connected with 2013 ears in Malaysia just as they had almost 70 years earlier in WWII-era America. It was not just me with the ear worm.

As Kim is fond of saying, if blues was money, I’d be millionaire.

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