Pee Wee Russell, one of the most imaginative clarinetists jazz has ever witnessed, will forever be memorialized on his career-capping collection, Portrait of Pee Wee, which mostly contains some of the master’s favorite standards from the 1920's and '30's. This album, originally recorded in 1958 for Esoteric Records, was first issued on CD in 1991 by DCC Compact Discs, but Empire Musicwerks remastered it for this latest release. The result is laudable, as the listener is left with a crystal-clear mixed set of danceable cocktail numbers, bluesy riverboat dreams and dixieland delights.
Russell was said to have spurned those who classified his playing. This is not hard to understand, as his sound belies classification. He was simply a great jazz musician whose inventive solos, especially in the early days, perplexed others, who often criticized them for their complexity and "out-of-tune" feel. As a vanguard, Russell held his own with other jazz legends such as Thelonious Monk, with whom Russell appeared at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. He also later added moderne tunes by John Coltrane and free-jazzer Ornette Coleman to his repertoire.On Portrait, however, Russell goes back to his bread and butter. One of the most recognizable standards on the CD might be "If I Had You." Russell and his septet sweetly swing it, transitioning from the minor B-section back to the light, spring-air main melody effortlessly. Sipping on Prohibition cocktails on Gatsby’s veranda that’s where this tune transports you. Russell also draws on Broadway repertoire with songs such as "Exactly Like You" and "It All Depends On You," Al Jolson's big hit from Big Boy in 1926. "Pee Wee’s Blues," the clarinet maestro’s signature piece, is a lazy, down-home, yet unconventionally melodic blues that typified Russell’s compositional proclivities. But then again, as this fine collection of music proves, there was nothing conventional about Pee Wee Russell.