Hey Ellington and Ben Webster fans, check out Ashby’s blues-drenched, melodic tenor sax. You just know that jaw-dropping sound came from a lifetime of paying dues. In 1950, Ash moved to Chicago to become Ben Webster’s protégé and record with those Chess blues legends. During the sixties, he subbed more and more with the Ellington Orchestra, taking over Jimmy Hamilton’s chair in 1968. Ash played and recorded with Duke until 1974. Just For You is “…for fans of unpretentious, melody-rich jazz that has a good beat…” 4-Stars according to Stereophile. You’ll hear Ash fire up the swing in John Hick’s piano playing. And that same fire lights up Keter Bett’s huge-sounding contrabass. Even Jimmy Cobb’s ever-tasty snare and high hat show extra snap and sparkle. Tunes include “Lotus Blossom”, “Sultry Serenade” and “The Intimacy of the Blues”.
1. Reminiscing (H. Ashby) -Listen to Sample
2. Stampash (H. Ashby) -Listen to Sample
3. Lotus Blossom (W. Strayhorn)
4. Forever (H. Ashby)
5. Tasty (H. Ashby) -Listen to Sample
6. Just For you (H. Ashby)
7. Neat (H. AShby)
8. The Intimacy Of The Blues (W. Strayhorn)
9. Sultry Serenade (E.K. Ellington/ T. Glenn)
10. Sweet Nuthins (H. Ashby)
Hal Ashby was the protege of Ben Webster, the Swing-era tenor saxophonist renowned for his 1940s tenure with Duke Ellington and numerous fine albums he made in the ’50s and ’60s. Webster’s unique, magisterial, creamy-to-barking tone was designed for ballads, but was aces on medium-to-fast swingers, too. Frog (a Webster nickname) took fellow Kansas City native “Ash” under his wing and ultimately introduced him to Ellington, with whom Ashby worked on and off from 1960 until Ellington’s death in 1974. (He stayed in the band led by Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington; until 1975.) Despite his Webster lineage, Ashby was never a mere copy. His sound, gorgeous like his mentor’s, often has a shade more edge and darkness, and he has more facility than Ben, handling fast tempos with aplomb--proved here by “Stampash”. Seventy-three when this album was made last year, Ashby is still vital and commanding. the program—three lovely ballads, including the opening “Reminiscing”; several fine medium groovers; and a telling slow blues, “Sweet Nuthins”—is for fans of unpretentious, melody-rich jazz that has a good beat and isn’t that complicated. Ashby offers the poignant theme of “Reminiscing” with that succulent, gusts-of-breath tone. Hicks then solos’ economically telling his story with one series of choice notes after another. Billy Strayhorn’s enthralling “Lotus blossom,” with a deft rubato intro by Hicks, is also given a theme-only performance by Ashby. Another Strayhorn classic, “Intimacy of the Blues,” reveals the leader as a hearty cooker. He doesn’t play a lot of notes, often going with short phrases for maximum rhythmic impact; Ash can make a repeated single note swing like mad. High tones shake with his sure vibrato, and contrastingly low bottom notes pop right out. “Tasty” is a shuffle blues taken a bit faster. Again, less is more. On “Forever,” and Ellington-like bossa nova, Ashby essentially sings his solo with dancing, pretty notes. What else is new? Throughout, Hicks is an ideal accompanist; bassist Keter Betts and drummer Jimmy Cobb provide additional just-so support. As we’ve come to expect from Pierre Sprey and Mapleshade, there’s a massive soundstage, superb tonal and timbral reproduction, and outstanding sonic clarity and detail.
Tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby, best known for his work with Duke Ellington in the late ’60s to mid ’70s, leads a quartet here with pianist John Hicks, bassist Keter Betts, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Ashby’s heard to the best advantage on ballads and moderatetempoed tunes, displaying his full, breathy tone; he’s quite reminiscent of Ben Webster. On faster selections, such as “Stampash”, he sounds shaky. He’s contributed some attractive originals, including “Reminiscing” and “Just for You”, to the date, though. The laudable Hicks normally plays with more modern musicians than Ashby, but adjusts nicely and turns in some swinging, intelligent solos of his own. Betts and Cobb move things along smoothly and unobtrusively. -Harvey Pekar
Former Duke Ellington band member Harold Ashby, although approaching 75 years, shows no sign of slowing down and no decrease in his sax playing prowess. Cut for Mapleshade Records, this album also reveals that Ashby is a composer of no mean accomplishment. All but three of the tunes are his, with the others belonging to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ashby's distinctive rendition of Ellington's "Lotus Blossom" is an outstanding reading. Strayhorn's "The Intimacy of the Blues" swings, and Ellington's "Sultry Serenade" is played by Ashby, with his characteristic, lightly touched tone combined with a kind of frolicking flavor. The tunes penned by Ashby run the gamut of style: "Reminiscing" is a sensual ballad while "Forever" has a faint Latin beat. The title tune is an intimate piece, reminiscent of Ellington's own "Azure," and is an album highlight. On the session's coda, "Sweet Nuthins," Ashby's tenor takes on a Hodge-esque flavor, featuring his soft-played approach to this blues-tinged number. Ashby is supported by three gifted musicians on the scene today; their efforts are consistent with the very relaxed feeling Ashby and producer Hamiet Bluiett have established for this session. No one is being pushed here, and John Hicks' piano playing is lightly touched. Keter Betts, long-time Washington, DC resident and elegant bass player supreme, combines with premiere drummer Jimmy Cobb to provide the proper rhythmic setting for both Ashby and Hicks to ply their wares. Those who prefer their jazz sophisticated and suave, not loud and raucous, will certainly be attracted to this very good album that amply demonstrates how good this music can sound when in the right hands. -Dave Nathan
This excellent-sounding new release from Mapleshade is worth picking up for one incredibly beautiful and moving cut, "Lotus Blossom" by Billy Strayhorn. What tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby, pianist John Hicks, bassist Keter Betts, and drummer Jimmy Cobb are able toachieve on this tune defies my humble attempts to describe it. Nearly half the time is taken up by a soulful bowed-bass and piano duet of surpassing loveliness, then Ashby comes in with his horn, and things get even better. Jazz perfection! The clean sound captured by Mapleshade makes it all the better. There are some other good performances on this CD, but as I said at the outset, "Lotus Blossom" is worth buying this CD for just by itself—the other nice cuts are a wonderful bonus. Ashby has a big, breathy tome reminiscent of Ben Webster, plus a tender way with a melody that will draw you right in. His sidemen support him ably, making this a most rewarding recording that is best played late at night. -Karl W. Nehring
According to the liner notes, Ashby dominated this session, schooling the other musicians as he went along. The others, no slouches themselves were happy to learn from the master. This sense of dominance and deference pervades the music. Although perfect in some respects, rarely does the rhythm section push Ashby, and thus rarely does he have to push back, and so the music is missing that certain tension that is needed to make great music. Or, I should say, to make great music even better, for the music here is lush and beautiful. Ashby is an urbane saxophonist, often identified by his long tenure with Duke Ellington. Even when he plays a gritty blues, what shines through is his gentility. It's as if he's not walking through the grit, but hovering above it, taking it in, but only that. Hicks, on the other hand, is not an urbane player. Ashby deals with that by encouraging Hicks to simplify his playing. This works nicely: Hicks puts less in his accompaniment than is usually there, which adds to the music's simple elegance. Then, when he solos, he brings out more of his ideas, while still keeping it simple. As for Betts, I think of him as the epitome of studied elegance, so he fits in just right. Hicks and Betts spend the first 2:30 of "Lotus Blossom" playing a duet that's so gorgeous I resented the intrusion of Ashby's tenor even though he created barely a ripple in the mood when he came in. Cobb's playing might lean more to the bebop ideal than Ashby might like, but that gives the music a little bit of a needed edge. So, a pretty album of beautifully rendered tunes, with little in the way of an edge, but that's likely to be appreciated by its intended audience. -Eric Saidel