Lester Can't Get Started


This handwritten manuscript is my transcription of Lester Young playing on 'I Can't Get Started', (Duke Vernon/Ira Gershwin) in 1942. In this recording session Prez was accompanied by the Nat King Cole trio. The relaxed feel and sensitive accompaniment of the group allows Lester to really show his rhythmic and melodic invention, as well as his rich vibrato sub-tone sound throughout the saxophone range. His high F# sounds like his bottom D!

One aspect of this solo that I really like is Lester's tying together of phrases based on straight and swung quavers, quaver triplets and semiquavers. The staccatos in bars 1, 9, 13 and 24 are intended to both be staccato and played straight. In particular I like how he ties triplet phrases together to create interesting syncopated rhythms as in bars 6 -7 or bar 11. He applies the same principle in bar 27 to tie semiquavers to swung quavers. This technique allows him to go between rhythmic subdivisions effortlessly and 'float' across the bar-lines. On the recording he also plays behind the beat and uses the scoops and staccatos notated to draw contrast with the more flowing nature of his triplet phrases. I approximated the behind-the-beat rhythm of bar 5, and as you can see I notated it differently on my Sibelius score below. I'd strongly recommend checking out the original recording to get the nuances of Lester's idiosyncratic phrasing!

Harmonically Lester also has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Having learnt this melody previously the first thing I noticed was that he'd raised the A in bar 3 (now notated as a Bb). I'd learnt bar 4 as having the chords F#- B7. However Lester's alteration implies F#7 B-, which distinctly changes the bar's sound and harmonic function. Lester's next chromatic embellishment also involves a Bb in a different setting. Bar 6 employs it as b9 of the dominant. this could be interpreted as being from G-/A, as he goes down to a D in the same phrase. In bar 24 the b9 is played as is the #9 (C natural). As the F natural (b13) is also played I'd be tempted to describe it as an altered dominant, however the E- triad preceding it makes it an embellishment of A7b9b13, derived from D harmonic minor. Played as chord I in tunes such as 'Caravan' and 'Misirlou', this scale can be thought of as 'mixophrygian'! Finally I'd like to point out the lovely way he plays F diminished into D major at bar 13. This is a very typical substitution of early jazz, where the passing diminished chord (derived from Db7 into F#-) replaces the dominant of the key (A7). There are numerous licks which employ this however Lester's phrase here was a new one on me, and I like how it incorporates the major 7th (E) and the b6 (C#) of the diminished scale.

I found these recordings particularly useful as an example of early Lester Young playing in a non - big band setting. It's also interesting to compare them to his playing on Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson trio (1954). It has been said that after his stint in the army, (1944-'45), and subsequent alcohol problems, Lester's playing abilities decreased. On the Oscar Peterson recording of 'I Can't get Started', I'd say that whilst he still plays with great invention and creativity, his sonic projection is noticeably weaker. Arguably this lends a vulnerable edge to his saxophone sound which wasn't there before.


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Robbie Fearon 2016