On 4 March 1959 Lester Young was in Barclay Records studio in Paris with two French musicians and two other Americans in Paris, guitarist Jimmy Gourley and drummer Kenny Clarke. Eleven days later, Pres, having returned to New York City, was dead. On his final session Young performs a dozen standards attempting to recreate some of the best performances of his career. The man that “Never played a tasteless note in his life” still didn’t and while in places his playing is not at its best there is something utterly compelling about his performance.
The revered critic Dan Morgenstern said. “He had this ‘floating’ style, where he would kind of float above the rhythm. He was like an acrobat, and, you know, at the same time, his melodic imagination was so marvelous. The combination of rhythm and melody — nobody else quite ever had that.” It could be a review of the music from that last session. Pres is credited with being the one who introduced the word “cool’ into the hipster’s vocabulary and that’s exactly what his playing was like that day in Paris.
Lester Young was still only 49 when he died but he left a remarkable body of work that is the very best of melodic tenor saxophone playing. If you want to spend a weekend with Lester Young then just check this link to The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve it will absorb you, delight you and if you have not listened to much Pres in the past then you have been missing out. There is the entire last Paris session included on the 8 CDs of The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve.
Young died on 15 March 1959 and four months later Billie Holiday, who frequently recorded with Lester Young in the 1930s, also passed away. Among the tracks cut at Young’s last session was ‘I Can’t Get Started’, a song that he and Billie had recorded together twenty-one years earlier. If you do nothing else today then listen to it HERE. Young sounds tired, but he never lost is innate sense of cool, his love for the melody and his grace. At the very end of the take he plays some flourishes that will send shivers down your back. Musically Pres was signing off. Here’s a short interview with Lester Young discussing Billie Holiday. It was Billie that first called Young, Pres, and he named her Lady Day.