I’m a Rock N Roll guy from the 1980s and 90s. As I continue to add on the years, I find myself turning more and more to classical and especially jazz. One artist and band that I found an immediate connection with was Count Basie.
Basie purists might sneer at my five selections, but give me a chance to explain. Basie’s career can be broken down into several timeframes, but my focus here is on his mid-career to later recordings. Born in 1904, this includes his “New Testament Band” in the 1950s and a later stage when he was between 60 and 75 years old and recorded with smaller ensembles and even a few trios.
I have not included recommendations from his original “Old Testament Band” from the 1930s and 1940s which had roots in Kansas City and Chicago. That era deserves another article and can stand on its own. Please see my summaries below as I will discuss the musicians and time frames with more detail and backstory.
Count Basie – The Atomic Basie (Classic Records Mono R-52003)
The Atomic Basie is a 1957 release on the Roulette label and an audiophile favorite. This particular group of musicians became known as the New Testament Band and included such legendary figures as Snooky Young (trumpet), Thad Jones (trumpet), Benny Powell Coker (trombone), Eddie Lockjaw Davis (reeds), Freddie Green (guitar), Sonny Payne (drums) and Joe Williams on vocals.
As opposed to his original Old Testament Band from the 1930’s and 1940’s who inspired the so called “Kansas City Swing” era, this group from the 1950’s had plenty of swing and many would argue is more Blues based with an added level of complexity and sophistication. Previously there was an emphasis on solos from such superstars as Lester Young (saxophone) and Buck Clayton (trumpet). Now the band reinvented itself with a new focus on arrangements and collective instrumentation.
For The Atomic Basie, Neal Hefti provides some of the most amazing arrangements ever written. He is also known for his collaborative efforts with Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and Frank Sinatra. In his later years he wrote several movie and television scores, but it’s his tenure with Basie that reflects his most important and respected work.
Track 7 “Whirlybird” is just one of many standouts. Fasten your seat belt as the Count takes the lead and shows some considerable speed and agility while showcasing his celebrated stride style on keyboards. The brass section kicks in with the dynamic punch and propulsion of an F-15 Eagle. Sonny Payne on drums keeps the rhythm flowing as his snares are the glue that holds it all together. Talk about pace, rhythm, and timing!!!
It’s always fun for the listener when you can tell that the musicians are having a blast. A lifelike wave of sound and emotion will entrench you from wall to wall in your listening room. If your toes are not tapping ten seconds after your needle hits the vinyl, something is definitely wrong. This is an essential LP for any big band or swing collection!
Count Basie and His Orchestra – April In Paris (Verve Records MG V-8012)
Another quintessential release from 1957 on the Verve label. This record is probably the biggest seller of Basie’s Big Band recordings from the 1950s. The enduring title tune is a key reason for this popularity as are classic cuts like Shiny Stockings, Corner Pockets, Midgets and Magic. We get some New Testament swing at its best along with some bebop mixed in. An original mono version is the one to have. It just might convince newbies why mono is so revered by the old schoolers.
There is plenty of humor and variety in the arrangements by Frank Foster, “Wild Bill” Davis and Frank Wess who are the real stars here. A wonderful combination of complexity and elegance is displayed throughout. Thad Jones and Joe Newman on trumpet and Frank Wess and Frank Foster on saxophone are all in a definite groove. Their solo work might just be the best of their careers with impressive levels of both technical precision and spontaneous excitement. Nothing can compare to the physical vitality of a Basie Band as they transport you through a roller coaster ride of chills and thrills.
Lets return to the title track “April In Paris”. Wild Bill’s arrangement, with considerable input by Basie, is considered by many as the “jazz anthem of it’s time”. Recorded previously by many artists, this is considered the definitive version. One of the few by Basie that ever reached the top of several charts, it is both respected and cherished by fans and musicians alike. Even Duke Ellington in his autobiography proclaimed it as pure genius. As the Count calls out “One More Time” at the end of the track, you will be inspired to spin it again and again and again.
From a sound perspective, the recording is absolutely captivating. Clear and razor sharp, you get all the metal and sizzle of the brass section along with the texture and warmth of the reeds. Basie on piano is clear and precise with plenty of power and weight – not always the case on other labels as he can get lost in the shuffle of so many players. No Count Basie collection would be complete without this classic creation.
Count Basie – Live at The Sands (Before Frank) (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-401)
Originally released on the Reprise label, this new hybrid SACD from Mobile Fidelity is a keeper (also available on vinyl). Most folks know about the Frank Sinatra classic: Live at The Sands. Basie and this very same band provide the back up on Frank’s album and also the entertainment during the breaks. It’s the music from these breaks over several nights that have been cut and pasted together to make one hell of a live mix. Original recordings were made at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas during performances in January and February of 1966.
Basie is at his peak here, and many would argue that this is one of the best big bands he ever pulled together. The members can vary slightly each night and are too long to list here, but you cannot ignore a few of the big names: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (tenor sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Sonny Payne (drums), Phil Guilbeau (trumpet), and Norman Keenan (bass).
There is tremendous power and swing demonstrated here, but all is under control, if not elegantly understated on certain tracks – as only the Count can do in his very unique and stylish way. Track 9, the classic “One O’Clock Jump” is the money maker for me. Individual musicians are given the opportunity to take solos over the band as the music plays on at an astonishing pace—and boy do they take advantage of the opportunity.
Everyone gets a shot at stardom, including Basie on piano and Keenan on acoustic bass, but it’s the brass section and individual reed instruments that steal the show. If you ever wanted to hear the proper reedy blat and dazzling transient speed of these instruments, this is the recording that will make you smile and jump out of your seat dancing. You have been fast forwarded to Las Vegas in 1966! Even Frank is beaming and shaking his head while waiting in the wings for his next entrance.
Count Basie – Kansas City Shout (Pablo D2310859)
Kansas City Shout is a Norman Grantz produced masterpiece on the Pablo label recorded in Spectrum Studios in both Hollywood and Venice California in 1980. A fairly small sized band includes Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on Alto Sax, David Stahl on trumpet, and Mitchell Booty Wood on trombone. Basie on piano and Joe Turner on vocals provide most of the highlights, but it’s the Blues that will thrill and inspire you.
The most outstanding track for me is “Just A Dream On My Mind” where Mr. Turner really roars from the first few bars to the last. As the cut begins, his piercing cry of “It Was A Dream” is a startling reverie over Basie’s simple piano melody. The texture, detail and speed of Turners voice along with the blunt power and full body of Basie’s piano definitely passes ‘the goose bump test. This is recorded in the twilight of Basie’s career but he is truly inspired here and lets it fly.
Slowly and surely with plenty of sensual undercurrent, the trombones and saxophones kick in with perfect synchronization and then they too work up into a manic frenzy. No distortion or smearing here. I can easily differentiate all the instruments and the vocalist across the soundstage. This is the Blues like only a few bands can perform it.
I heard this recording for the first time during a Chicago CES demonstration of the now long gone and classic Apogee Studio speakers in the late 1980s. It blew me away. My memory of that day for both the speakers and the music will always be ingrained in my mind. I immediately ran out and made the CD purchase (I could only dream about the speakers). It has been a staple ever since. Pure enjoyment.
Count Basie Kansas City Three – For The Second Time (Pablo 2310-878)
Rare is the performance and recording of Basie playing in a simple trio. This is another timeless effort on the Pablo label released in 1975 and again produced by Norman Granz. Here we have Count Basie on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Louis Bellson on drums – three of the greatest to ever take the stage. This a sequel to the same trio on the same label on a release entitled For The First Time. I prefer the sequel, but the original is also highly recommended.
Basie is uniquely front and center and demonstrates considerable skills that are infrequently found on his big band recordings. This ranges from some high tempo swing to some spare and understated Blues. Every stroke of the key board and every pause in between has a purpose and meaning. Track 6, “Blues for Eric” is a perfect example. Effortless and embellished, Basie is allowed to really spread out and show his stuff.
Ray Brown and Louis Bellson provide a stellar performance as only an all star rhythm section can do. Again, the chops are simple but with plenty of tasty nuance and seduction. Brush strokes are ever so lithe and agile, never over powering. The bass solos are to die for. Clean and muscular with plenty of authority and visceral impact. Basie has always given his rhythm sections the credit for delivering direction and inspiration, and it was never so true as it is here.
Pablo recordings produced by Norman Granz typically provide excellent sound and this is one of the best. There is a wonderful sense of the ambiance and air in the recording venue and the around each of the instruments. A rich colorful tapestry of harmonics and textures will have you swooning.