DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Teddy Wilson became famous in the 1930s playing in Benny Goodman's racially-integrated small groups and recording his own combo sides with a young Billie Holiday. A new boxset looks at what else Wilson was up to back then. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "BIG APPLE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Teddy Wilson and a seven-piece band in 1937. By then, medium-tempo swingers like that were his bread and butter. Only three years earlier, Wilson's first records had pledged allegiance to madcap piano genius Earl Hines, who'd briefly been a mentor. Here's Wilson then on "Somebody Loves Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF EARL HINES' "SOMEBODY LOVES ME")
WHITEHEAD: That kind of fancy piano put Teddy Wilson on track to become the world's second greatest Earl Hines. So he began to cultivate a style more in keeping with his own reserved personality, a style less exhausting for everybody. Now, Wilson went the other way. He cut out the subplots, clarified his melody line and made it dance over the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "COQUETTE")
WHITEHEAD: Teddy Wilson with sometime employer and sometime sideman Benny Goodman on clarinet. A 7-CD box from the Web-order house Mosaic Records, "Classic Brunswick And Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942," leaves out the Wilson-Billie Holiday collaborations that are easy to find elsewhere and a few rare sides with country singer Redd Evans that I wish had been included. Teddy Wilson's recording groups are prized for their springy informality and for great soloists often drawn from Goodman's or Duke Ellington's bands. The singers who do turn up include Thelma Carpenter, Helen Ward from Goodman's orchestra and up-and-coming teenager Ella Fitzgerald.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MELANCHOLY BABY")
ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Every cloud must have a silver lining. Wait until the sun shines through. So smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear, or else I shall be melancholy too.
WHITEHEAD: Teddy Wilson recorded many classic tunes and some weaker material where a soloist came to the rescue. When a session includes a singer, she's part of the ensemble, one soloist among several, if the one most obligated to stick to the tune. Nan Wynn brings a light touch to one Judy Garland throwaway, but saxophonist Benny Carter takes greater liberties. So the women do the grunt work, and the men have the fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE BUMPY ROAD TO LOVE")
NAN WYNN: (Singing) Remember this. When anything goes wrong, we'll stop and kiss, then merrily roll along. We'll get rich or we won't. Who cares whether we do or don't? We'll go bum-de-bum (ph), de-bum-de-bum-bum-bum (ph) the bumpity road to love.
WHITEHEAD: Eventually, like any star Benny Goodman sideman, Teddy Wilson formed his own big band, a bit smaller than most and not always so distinctive. Its other standout was roaring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster before he got famous with Ellington. This is Webster's "71."
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "71")
WHITEHEAD: Teddy Wilson didn't have a successful bandleader's outgoing personality. His orchestra folded, and he went back to recording with small pickup bands. In 1941, one more sextet backed one more young singer on the rise, Lena Horne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISONER OF LOVE")
LENA HORNE: (Singing) He's in my dreams, awake or sleeping. Upon my knees to him I'm creeping. My very soul is in his keeping. I'm just a prisoner of love.
WHITEHEAD: Alongside other soloists, Teddy Wilson always shared the spotlight. Alone or in a trio was a different story. The Mosaic box includes a few newly-unearthed trio improvisations where the keys fly off the piano. It's not like he'd forgotten everything he'd learned from Earl Hines or Art Tatum. For a paragon of tasteful restraint, Teddy Wilson could really play.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "CHINA BOY (VERSION 4)")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Classic Brunswick And Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942" on the Mosaic label. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new indie film "Golden Exits." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "MOONGLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.