Monday Notes

Ben Webster, Chelsea Bridge. The warm voice of the tenor sax

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[Monday Notes no. 18] A former member of Duke Ellington‘s orchestra, Ben Webster began like many by imitating Coleman Hawkins, later developing a more personal style. The saxophonist was capable of powerful and passionate playing but his most original characteristics are his warm timbre and masterful use of dynamics, as occurs in Chelsea Bridge.

Chelsea Bridge is an evocative tune composed by Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, Billy Strayhorn. In the beginning, the melody repeatedly insists on the #11, creating an effect of tension and suspension. The B part is instead enlivened by modulations to the keys of E, A and G.

Chelsea Bridge, Billy Strayhorn
Chelsea Bridge, Billy Strayhorn

We are listening to Ben Webster accompanied by a European rhythm section, probably at the Ronnie Scott Jazz Club in London. The saxophonist spares the notes of the theme, always behind the beat, master of the ‘unspoken’ and of nuances.

Part B (minute 1’06”) is barely whispered and at the end of the exposition Ben Webster leaves the improvisation to the pianist (2’10”), who continues as if hypnotised by the tenor saxophone’s voice, playing a minimalist solo in a style partly reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. The saxophonist then resumes the theme, with the last notes fading into silence.

Ben Webster interprets Billy Strayhorn’s composition Chelsea’Bridge in his own very personal, rarefied and suspended style, creating a kind of impressionist miniature not so different from the music of French classical composer Claude Debussy.

Until next Monday

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