Archive for March 6, 2009

The Atomic Mr Basie

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 6, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been lecturing and writing bumf all day and decided I could do with a bit of a break, but my fingers are so used to typing today that they insisted I should use this ten-minute hiatus to write a blog entry. And who am I to argue with my digits?

Anyway, I had an idea last night of something to put up so I’ll take it off the mental shelf on which I store silly blog ideas and present it now.

Last weekend I went to see the Opera Doctor Atomic in London, and last night I was tidying up my CDs which I usually leave lying around all over the place. In amongst the ones I found in my study and moved back to their rack was the brilliant album that my version calls The Atomic Mr Basie, but I think was originally issued in 1957 on LP with the name E=MC2. I doubt that there is that much musical fare with the word “Atomic” in the title so it struck me as a bit of a coincidence. Apart from anything else it’s a reminder of how far the language of atomic bombs had entered into popular circulation during the 1950s. I can’t think of any other Jazz albums with an equation as the title either.

I’m not sure why Count Basie became Mr Basie for the purposes of the later title, but there you are.

Jazz historians tend to distinguish quite sharply between two versions of the Count Basie Orchestra. According to the books, the first Basie Band was a rough-and-ready blues outfit that arrived in New York from Kansas City in 1936 and the second was a magnificently slick powerhouse machine that emerged after a short hiatus in 1951. Actually both bands were terrific, able to slip from laid back swing to full-throttle up-tempo rabble-rousing in barely the bat of an eye. Anyway, how “rough-and-ready” could a band be with the great Lester Young in the saxophone section? Another invariant between the two bands was the brilliance of the rhythm section which had a featherlight touch but was able to drive the band along like no other.

The late and very great Ella Fitzgerald described the Count Basie Orchestra as

They’re the swinginest band there ever was. They swing ya into bad health.”

Quite.

The real difference in the two bands wasn’t really the personnel (although that did change substantially over the years), but in the style of playing. The early Count Basie Orchestra didn’t have very sophisticated written arrangements so it relied a lot more on punchy riffs and call-and-answer exchanges between the brass and reeds, which were executed incredibly tightly considering that they were ad-libbed. The second manifestation drew on superb arrangers, particularly Neal Hefti who wrote most of the arrangements on The Atomic Mr Basie. The band still had an almost telepathic gift for synchronized riffing, especially playing behind a star soloist improvising in one of the many gaps left in the arrangements.

I had a quick shufti for hefti on Youtube and found one of the tracks from The Atomic Mr Basie, Whirlybird, performed in 1965 but with the same tenor sax soloist, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis that plays on the album. I remember going to see him play in Newcastle once and was blown away by his enormous sound, the muscular leatheriness of his tone, and his uncanny ability to change up a gear just when you think he’s going flat out. Then in his sixties, he was an exhilirating musician to listen to and he was even better twenty years earlier with this great band punching out riffs behind him. I love this version nearly as much as the original, even if the drum solo (by the overrated Rufus Jones) does go on a bit, because the brass section is just awesome…

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