Les Paul: The Wizard of Waukesha
The most famous of the early “jazz” recordings by Paul is the July 2, 1944, Jazz at the Philharmonic performance. As this is written, this recording is available on both Verve and Jasmine Records. This first JATP concert is in some ways a harbinger of things to come, with long solos on standard tunes, including crowd-pleasing squealing and honking from tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. But there are other interesting historical glimpses of important artists here: trombone great J. J. Johnson before his conversion to bebop language, drummer Lee Young (Lester’s brother) in a rare recorded performance, and a hard-driving, rather than cool and laid-back Nat Cole on piano. The good-humored interplay between Cole and Paul (especially in their high-spirited trading on “Blues”) suggests their comfort level with one another, the product of their frequent jamming together.
Some of the transcription recordings from World War II are available. Les Paul and His Trio: Crazy Rhythm (Varèse Sarabande Records) features fifteen short tracks from the trio (three plus Les) that don’t feature a great deal of jazz improvisation, but show Paul doing a great deal of “melody decorating.” This is not “Hall of Fame” jazz, but it will be informative for those wishing hear how Paul built his early popularity with this trio (quartet) sound.
There are many collections of the Paul-Ford hits. Although hardly anyone considers this music jazz, it is a significant slice of American pop. I might recommend Les Paul with Mary Ford: The Best of the Capitol Masters: 90th Birthday Edition (Capitol). It includes all the big hits: “Lover,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How High the Moon” and the others, as well as a lengthy excerpt from one of the radio shows from the ‘50s.
The Grammy-winning duo album with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester (RCA) is not a jazz album. However, there is plenty of improvisation, sometimes there is a straight-ahead swing feeling, and much of the repertoire – “Avalon,” “Moonglow,” “It Had to be You,” “Caravan,” and others – can be found on many jazz albums, especially from the Swing Era. Those who appreciate good guitar playing will enjoy the album.
A number of documentaries have been made about Paul. A good recent one is Les Paul: Chasing Sound! on Koch Vision, which was made for the public television series American Masters and released in 2006. It includes considerable archival material – film cuts, photographs and recordings, as well as interviews with Paul from this period and performances from the Iridium Club in New York.