LP REVIEW: Ben Webster – The Warm Moods



Ben Webster – The Warm Moods
(Pure Pleasure/Reprise Records R9-2001. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)


This sumptuous and dazzling album was recorded for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label in 1961 and in the long years since then it has become a sought-after rarity on LP, elusive and expensive, with immaculate copies almost impossible to find. But that quandary has been solved by the British label Pure Pleasure who have now brought it back into print in a fabulously restored version on 180 gram virgin vinyl. This is great news because the value of The Warm Moods lies not just in the playing of its headline soloist Ben Webster, but also the writing of the celebrated Mexican-American arranger Johnny Richards who has created a hip and decorative nest of strings for the birdsong of Webster’s tenor.

Born Juan Manuel Cascales in Querétaro or Toluca — accounts vary — Johnny Richards came up through the big bands of Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton, particularly distinguishing himself with his writing for Kenton before graduating to his own albums and composing the standard Young at Heart.

This recording does full justice to Webster’s huge, warm tone, flowing out in a smooth broad wave over Richards’s sardonically skittering strings. Webster first laid claim to greatness playing with Duke Ellington in the early 1940s, so a larger ensemble setting is an ideal musical context for his playing. On The Warm Moods Richards has supplemented the rhythm section with two string configurations — four cellos on some tracks, a cello, a viola and two violins on others. Ellington himself is represented here with an eloquently groovy take on his I’m Beginning to See the Light in which Webster wrings the beautiful sound out of the melody like warm water from a cloth. Gene DiNovi (another Charlie Barnet alumnus) on piano plays with a Basie-like discretion and sparseness, the cellos are lean and effective and the tune comes to a startlingly swift conclusion, composed and stately.

The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi is witty and teasing and demonstrates the piercing precision and modernist angularity in Richards’s use of strings that prevents them lapsing into standard schmaltz. Stella by Starlight is quietly beautiful and showcases the relaxed lyricism of Webster’s playing, revealing the visceral appeal of the lovely melody. Don Bagley’s light-touch bass and Frank Capp’s discrete drums underpin the enterprise. The strings are like frost crystals on a winter window, adding to the beauty of the prospect rather than obscuring it.

There are further treasures here. With Every Breath I Take (nothing to do with Sting) sees sax and strings conspiring to quietly break our hearts while Capp comps and the piano (this time by Donn Trenner) is articulate and artful in its statement of the song. On It’s Easy to Remember listening to Webster’s tenor and the strings is like trying to tune into two fascinating conversations at a party simultaneously. Above all, the intoxicating, swaying swing of Time After Time is a highpoint of this fine record.

After years of having to battle it out on eBay for what transpire to be fatally scratched and crackly fifty year old copies, it’s a dream come true for listeners to have this classic recording back in the catalogue, available in mint condition, purchasable at the press of a button, and sounding quite superb.

LINK: : The Warm Moods at Pure Pleasure Records

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