Correspondence: The Spirit of Ben Webster

Rifftides reader Nina Ramos listened to Carol Sloane’s newest recording, encountered something that disturbed her, and sent this message:


Just finished reading your liner notes and listening to Carol Sloane’s Dearest Duke. I liked it very much – except – (and am I the only one to notice?) the extremely loud breathiness in the sax part of two pieces especially – “In My Solitude” and “I Got It Bad”. It just about ruins both of those songs for me. Did I get a defective recording, or is that how it’s “supposed” to sound?

Is he too close to the mike on these pieces? You didn’t mention this in your liner notes so I wondered if your copy had the same loud breaths on it. Both of these sax solos start about 2 minutes into each song. As you can probably tell, I know very little about jazz, other than I like something or I don’t. I loved her voice – but that sax…. Thank you for any information you care to give.

Dear Ms. Ramos,

Peps.jpgKen Peplowski (l), who got your attention in his collaboration with Carol Sloane, is paying homage to Ben Webster (r) (1909-1973), the great Duke
Ben.jpgEllington tenor saxophonist. Webster’s use of breathy vibrato on ballads was a trademark and, to many listeners, one of his most endearing qualities. Whether Peplowski was miked too closely is a matter of preference, I suppose, but there is no doubt that he was emulating Webster.  

The great Ellington band of 1940 and 1941 is generally identified in Ellingtonia as the Blanton-Webster band after two of its stars, bassist Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster. This box set contains lots of classic Webster with Ellington in that period. This encounter with Gerry Mulligan has superb latterday Webster.

There is more information in the chapter on Webster in my book Jazz Matters: Reflections On The Music And Some Of Its Makers. Here’s a paragraph.

In the beginning his playing was modeled closely on the dramatic, sweeping, even grandiose, style of Coleman Hawkins. But over time, Webster pared away embellishments and rococo elements while maintaining warmth and a big tone, and created a style that appeals with force and clarity directly to the emotions.

If you seek out Webster’s recordings, perhaps you, too, will submit to his charms. To see and hear him play “Old Folks” with Teddy Wilson on piano, click here. Yes, that’s a tear rolling down Ben’s cheek when Wilson finishes his solo. He felt things deeply.

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  1. says

    Not to do with Ben Webster exactly, but perhaps his most notable replacement in the band Paul Gonsalves. When I got my first record with Paul on it (a great album called Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges) I figured there was something wrong with his horn because there was so much air in the sound. I went on to become a huge fan of Paul’s, but it’s funny how first impressions work.

  2. says

    I see my friend Phil Dwyer’s comment below. For those who don’t know Phil, you should. Click on his name, which is a link to his website, and search out his music.
    He is an enormously gifted musician, as a reed player, pianist, composer and arranger. He knows the history of the music, is very much in the present, and should be a great part of the future. He’s as damn close to genius as I’ve ever met. (And he has a beautiful family, too).

  3. Joseph Edward Perez says

    Hello Mr. Ramsey,
    I’m a new reader to the blog, but I really do like it. I know this post is old, but being a professional saxophonist, I do have a view I want to share on this.
    I have found in my experience with fellow musicians that often times the “breathiness” that Ben Webster often used, these days is derided as a flaw in one’s tone. It seems the ideal sound these days is a solid-core sound that possesses none of the airiness of Mr. Webster’s sound. Personally, I am a huge fan of his tone (as any saxophonist would say) and often emulate it(or try to) on gigs when the situation calls for it. However, most often in modern saxophone playing the facet of his tone that is most emulated is the broadness and depth of his sound, the “sweeping” quality that he has, particularly on ballads. Listen to James Carter or “Trio Jeepy”-era Branford Marsalis for a good example of this.
    I wonder if this modern negative view of the “breathy” sound is partly due to modern recording techniques. Modern listeners (including musicians) are accustomed to the more modern tones that came in vogue post-Trane and I would dare say that none of the well-known modern saxophonists employ this particular aspect of Mr. Webster’s tone that the listener finds offensive. Often times things like airiness sound like flaws on a modern recording because the other instruments in the ensemble sound so pristine and crystal clear. EVERYONE sounded messed up on those old 45s!!! The technology available altered the sound of every instrument so something like Mr. Webster’s “breathiness” didn’t sound all that out of context. These days you have basses going direct to a board, drummers isolated in rooms with a mic on every head, and pianos that are isolated and then run through some sort of filter. How can a breathy saxophonist possibly sound compatible to that???
    I love his sound, but I can understand why many new listeners today can’t accept it.