Saturday, September 11, 2004

Thug Love: The Artistry of Ben Webster

A half-finished (quarter-finished) message rescued from the purgatory of long-abandoned draft-dom and unleashed upon the world, with its flaws in full display.

Tupac Shakur had the words "Thug Love" tatooed in an arch above his belly, so applying the term to Ben Webster is hugely anachronistic, yet oddly fitting. The three elements I see as constitutive of Thug Love as an aesthetic are Love (romantic or physical), Violence (real or implied) and Hedonism. The ways Tupac expressed this are clear enough, but how did Webster do something similar non-verbally?

Huge sound (huge bearing no relationship to loud) and incurable relaxedness meant that Ben Webster had a foot in the stylistic camps of the two tenor giants of the time, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. But his head was somewhere else again. This combination made his playing voluptuous in ways neither of the other two masters were, while oozing sensuality and romance. A tender embrace given by visibly muscly arms and, to the over-eager potential rival, a "fuck off" glare illuminated by table-for-two candelight. The breathy edges of a tender whisper can coalesce into a trenchant growl at any moment. Conversely, a brawny run can trn into a delicate tiptoe just as quickly.

Webster's hedonism comes from revelling in the groove and the sheer act of playing. His trademark sky-bound bent notes seem to be cries of unfettered pleasure.