Ben Webster, Ben Webster plays Duke Ellington

Adam Sweeting

By Adam Sweeting

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Ben Webster plays Duke Ellington

Ben Webster
The great, mercurial saxman cut some fine sides with the Duke in the ’60s — until he ticked off the boss.

One of the founding fathers of jazz saxophone and a celebrated son of Kansas City, Webster was famed for his rasping way with a blues tune and for the breathy sensuality of his playing. He spent the '30s progressing through a sequence of high-class big bands, led by the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Benny Carter, and he joined Duke Ellington in 1940. His relationship with the Duke was often stormy, and he quit three years later after hacking one of Ellington's expensive suits to ribbons, but he left a permanent stamp on the Ellington band thanks to his playing on tunes such as "Cottontail" and "All Too Soon." Charming when sober and terrifying when drunk, Webster made fine recordings until his death in 1973. A case in point is this collection of Ellington material from the mid '60s, drawn from five sessions, including three with the Danish Radio Band. The two entirely different versions of "Cottontail" illustrate Webster's imagination and versatility.