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September 2005

Count Basie
The Complete Cleff/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings
Mosaic Records

Conventional wisdom among Count Basie experts is that Basie’s 1937–1941 outfit was nonpareil. With Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Earle Warren and the incomparable All-American Rhythm Section, Basie achieved an apogee of swinging that set the standard for generations of musicians. It was a soloist’s band and a head arrangement band, capable of spontaneity equaled only by Woody Herman’s First Herd for a short time in the mid-’40s.
Fair enough. But Basie ran a strong second place to himself with the new band he put together in 1951. Big bands were in trouble after the air went out of the swing era, and Basie had misgivings, but Billy Eckstine had dogged him for months and finally convinced him that the world—or at least Eckstine—needed Basie at the helm of a large aggregation. Eckstine was producing tours of jazz stars. Chris Albertson tells the story in a comprehensive essay accompanying these eight CDs.
“The new band would not be a resurrection of the old,” Albertson writes, “but rather one that represented a different approach by relying more upon a well-endowed library of charts than on individual players.”

With the first track from January 1952, Nat Pierce’s “New Basie Blues,” the ensemble launches an era on the proposition that it is possible for a band to swing one whole note from a flat-footed start. Throughout these nearly nine hours of music taken from five glorious years, the hard swinging proceeds, relieved now and then by ballads that also swing, albeit more softly. One of the joys of the 1952 sides is the tenor saxophone work of Paul Quinichette—not a mirror image of Lester Young, more a devoted kid brother. The contrast between Quinichette’s floating solos and Lockjaw Davis’ roaring ones is delicious. There is an occasional puzzle, such as Al Hibbler’s lugubrious vocal on “Let Me Dream,” after which he redeems himself by approximating Jimmy Rushing on “Sent for You Yesterday” and “Goin’ to Chicago.”

Fans of Basie’s 1970s encounters with Oscar Peterson on Norman Granz’s Pablo label may be surprised to find that Granz initiated the mutual admiration society a quarter of a century earlier when he recorded the young Canadian piano phenomenon with Basie’s band. The 11-minute “Blues for the Count and Oscar” is a stirring record of that rollicking meeting, with Peterson at the piano and Basie on organ. Basie alternates between piano and organ on 10 selections by his 1952 sextet—including drummer Buddy Rich, guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Gene Ramey—that achieves ball-bearing rhythm section silkiness. His solos on both instruments are reminders of his debt to his teacher, Fats Waller.

By the summer of 1953, Basie’s output began to demonstrate even more dramatically the importance of arrangers to the new venture. Charts by Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Johnny Mandel, Manny Albam and the newly arrived Franks—Foster and Wess—bolstered the book. Among them were Mandel’s now classic “Straight Life,” Hefti’s “Cherry Point” and, a year later, Wilkins’ explosive “Sixteen Men Swinging.” For a few months, Joe Wilder contributed his impeccably phrased, unhurried, golden trumpet conception. His replacement, newly arrived in New York from Detroit, was Thad Jones, who announced his huge talent with a restrained, confident solo on “She’s Just My Size.” Now the band was developing the configuration and sound that identified it through the rest of the ’50s and into the ’60s. Basie’s performances took on texture, smoothness and power that captivated listeners across the country. The band became a regular at Birdland in New York and the Blackhawk in San Francisco, and busy at points between.

In 1955, in fairly rapid succession, came two breaks that catapulted Basie from a dance band with a jazz audience into a popular success. Joe Williams added his vigor, taste and perfect time, attracting attention with blues vocals that became staples of his and Basie’s career: “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” “Alright, O.K., You Win” and “(In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down.” Half a century later, Williams’ freshness and enthusiasm are as engaging as ever, emphasized in Malcolm Addey’s meticulous remastering for Mosaic. Then Basie recorded a version of “April in Paris” that captured public affection with two unexpected elements. The first was a Thad Jones solo that he whimsically began with a snippet from “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The second was Basie’s instruction to the band, “One more time,” followed by a repetition of the out-chorus. Crowds, and record buyers, couldn’t get enough of it. Basie and Williams went on to produce jukebox and radio hits for Verve until 1957, when Basie and Granz fell out and Basie took his band to the Roulette label, where he had further success with “Lil’ Darlin’” in the so-called Atomic Basie period.

Important as the arrangers, ensemble strength and soloists were to the band, there was just one indispensable element. I remember a night in Seattle in 1956 when, for some reason, the band started the evening without Basie. They were swinging nicely for the dancers. Eventually, Basie walked onto the stand and sat at the piano. In the middle of an ensemble passage, he looked at his men and struck one note. The intensity of the swing increased exponentially and galvanized the atmosphere. As this set reminds us, Bill Basie was that element.

Originally published in September 2005
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