Jazz Album Review: Pianist Billy Lester — One Very Hip Nerd
By Michael Ullman
Pianist Billy Lester is an amusingly dry fellow who is also a deeply serious, idiosyncratic musician.
Billy Lester Trio, From Scratch (Newvelle), $65.
In his notes to the LP version of Billy Lester’s From Scratch, producer Elan Mehler mentions that he pointed out to the pianist, now in his 70s, that on the second takes of the standards he doesn’t play the melody. Lester pauses and responds “But I played the melody on the first take.” This is an amusingly dry fellow who is also a deeply serious, idiosyncratic musician. Lester’s beautifully recorded session is made with two stars: bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson. Reid has recorded with Dexter Gordon, Richard Abrams, Lee Konitz, Henry Threadgill and Helen Merrill, and dozens of others. At the end of the Lester session, filmed for the short documentary Billy Lester: Listening In, Reid goes up to the pianist, squeezes his shoulder, and thanks him for his music.
Let’s hope that more comes along. The LP was well received by the jazz press. In the download I am now listening to, I received five new performances in addition to the original nine. (One is a gratifying alternate take of “These Foolish Things.”) In the documentary, Lester talks briefly about his background. Original though he is, Lester seems, even in his reticence, a direct descendant of Lennie Tristano, who taught pianist Sal Mosca, who then taught Lester. The pianist was a teenager when he was sent to Mosca, whom Tristano called “one of the all time great piano players”: “Sal’s first assignment to me at age 16 was to buy ‘Lester Leaps In’ by Count Basie from ’36…. I spent a year of studies singing Lester Young’s solos at slow speed, then fast, then learning to play them, left hand and right hand, then figuring out left hand accompaniments.” Lester eventually arrived at Young’s 1936 recording of “Lady Be Good,” and it was a revelation: “That was really my life decision, right there.” At the age of 17 he decided to become a musician. I am just as impressed that a teenager spent a year memorizing solos before he even got to “Lady Be Good.”
Lester says of his approach to the piano: “I have no particular technique.… It’s all just waiting for it to happen.” In the documentary, we see him sitting down at the piano, concentrating, waiting, as he says, for something to happen. It’s a productive artist strategy for him. Regrettably, it also seems to have been how the pianist has approached his performing career. Lester has made only a handful of recordings, the first two, Captivating Rhythm and At Liberty, in 1995 when he was close to 50. Now From Scratch has arrived, and it is very welcome. As we have it, the session opens with “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” I am guessing this was a second take, for the first bars find Lester in mid-thought, as if someone just threw open a window. In the second phrase he hints at the written melody, but he is already improvising after the first three notes. “These Foolish Things” opens with a throbbing note from the magnificent-sounding Reid, who is soon strolling with a swaying rhythm. Lester plays a little upward-tending phrase, repeats it a little higher, stops to listen to Reid again, as if to gather energy, and then plays a series of intriguingly oblique block chords. In their midst, he injects some tremolos. It’s a patient performance that self-consciously draws attention to the interaction of the three instruments.
Lester and crew play Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” zestfully. Lester shows us his bebop chops as he leads us into some fascinating byways of harmony. I don’t know a more original “Body and Soul” than the one we have here. (It’s as if Coleman Hawkins’s version never existed.) The melody is at first presented clearly enough. It’s sketched and subsequently mostly avoided. I was wondering how the pianist would approach the distinctive bridge: anticipating the key change, he plays a repeated chord and watches Reid fall into line. Among the new tunes, Lester may be paying another tribute to Charlie Parker with “Just Friends,” which Parker famously recorded with strings. After stating the first phrase — almost verbatim — the pianist plays the piece with a comical series of very short tense phrases that curl in on themselves as if they were out of breath. It reminded me of squirrels playing. Later he gloms onto the “lovers no more” turn of phrase and plays it repeatedly as a series.
It’s worth hearing this session for Lester’s accompanists Reid and Wilson alone. The bassist takes a gorgeous solo on “Just Friends.” As for Lester, he supplies two valuable solo pieces — a rhythmically powerful “I’ll Remember April” and “Darn That Dream.” The trio approaches “There Will Never Be Another You” as a swinger. Lester’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” is a sweetly slow ballad into which the pianist interjects hints of the blues. He has techniques — many of them — at his fingertips. He seems to be a modest man: in the documentary, Lester’s wife describes him as not being her type of guy at all. When they met (their children are grown) she saw him as “the quintessential nerd.” To me, Lester is as hip a nerd as Lennie Tristano.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.