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Count Basie Orchestra: The Complete Atomic Basie

Monday, March 20th, 2006 by Martin Hester


The Count Basie Orchestra: The Complete Atomic Basie
Arrangements:Neal Hefti
Recorded 1957. Blue Note 28635

The Swing Era is a time of American Music when, in the years at the end of  the Depression and before the second World War, one of the chief forms of live entertainment was to be found in the Dance Halls. Jazz was already widespread, with its strong rhythm, spontaneous improvisation and bluesy touch. The Jazz Orchestras took this idiom, enlarged the group of musicians to about 20, and used more written arrangements to produce a more elaborate, coordinated sound. In the days before massive amplification, the sound was loud, exciting, and the enthusiasm of the audience could inspire the musicians to wonderful flights of imagination and inspiration – filling the Dance Halls with a big sound from a “Big Band”!

And would you believe it, the Big Band sound is alive and well – in Rio de Janeiro! From the late 70s, the flag was carried by the Rio Jazz Orchestra, now directed by Marcos Szpilman, while since the 90s they have been joined by UFRJazz, a group based on the Escola de Musica de Rio de Janeiro, and lead by Maestro José Rua. UFRJazz (how do you say that?) play Big Band standards, as well as Brazilian music, and new arrangements made especially for them – and are amazingly competent.

Figureheads of Big Band Jazz
One of the pioneers of Big Band jazz was Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, which played in New York in the 20s, and had Louis Armstrong as one of its stars. In the 30s, the two famous Big Jazz Bands were those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who both kept going from the 30s to the 70s. Duke Ellington was composer, arranger, and bandleader, and he was so successful he became a symbol for the rise of coloured musicians. White band-leaders had an easier time, and Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller became household names throughout the 30s and 40s, being associated with the style of music which is called Swing.

Count Basie and his Orchestra
William Basie was born in New Jersey in 1905. He worked as a musician in New York, but it was in Kansas City that he made his name as a bandleader, during the Depression of the 30s. (He was named ‘Count’ to keep up with the Duke and Earl titles adopted by other musicians!). His 1930s Band is still considered legendary, for its strong swing, and outstanding soloists (including Buck Clayton trumpet, and the twin tenors of Herschel Evans and Lester Young).

Big Bands had a hard time after WWII, and before 1950 most were disbanded – including Basie’s. But in 1952, he was back in business, and his new orchestra set new standards for what a Big Band could sound like. He retained the traditional “rhythm section” made up of piano, guitar, bass and drums, and these backed five saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones. To ensure coordination for a group of this size, it is usual to write out the music each one should play in the ensembles – so the musicians are ‘readers’. (Even reading music requires interpretation, because the syncopation and rhythmic subtlety is difficult to annotate). After they play the tune through once or twice together, the pieces have solos, where one player comes to the fore and improvises, sometimes with the rest of the group playing “riffs” – or repeated little patterns of melody – behind him. Most popular songs played by bands have a 32-bar AABA structure, except for the famous 12-bar blues. So the rhythm section will always repeat the original sequence, maintaining the structure, and the soloist can invent what he wants on top, fitting it in with anything else the Band may be playing. The best players, therefore, have an absolutely instinctive control of their instrument – what they think, they can play. What they are inspired to do, that’s what happens. And after the spontaneous part, the theme is repeated all together to close.

The special qualities of this Basie Band started in the pulsating rhythm section – the guitar laying down a steady beat, the bass forcing it forward, the drums even dragging a bit (so the others force harder) – except for the interjections – and the piano absolutely minimalist. A few notes here and there, always apposite. Then in the other sections, Basie had musicians who played very well together, absolutely precise in their syncopation and coordination, and who could come up with wonderful solos.

On this record, the arrangements written down are by Neil Hefti, who had a precise vision of the potential of this group, and mixed power and restraint wonderfully together.

To top it all, the recording quality is excellent: the pulse of the rhythm is always there, even with the rest of the band blasting away!

The CD
The first track “The Kid from RedBank” is a reference to Basie himself, and he actually has a full chorus to solo! Up tempo, showing the power and precision of the “Orchestra”. The “Duet” is between two muted trumpets (Thad Jones and Joe Newman), over a strong striding double-bass line. “After Supper” is surprisingly drowsy – a smooth melody from the saxes over the 12-bar blues sequence. “The Flight of the Foo Birds” is bouncy, the melody stated by muted trumpets, and there is a short brassy interlude at the end of the chorus which sets the scene for some great solos – alto sax, trumpet, tenor sax – the latter with a really outrageous entry, exaggerating what the alto did (Eddie Lockjaw Davies’ startling contribution). Then the full band takes it to a powerful close, with interjections from drums and piano. This track is the essence of that Basie Band, and wonderful it is.

The rest of the original recording of “The Atomic Mr. Basie” has another four numbers based on the 12-bar blues sequence, at varying tempos, two very up-tempo numbers (Double-O and Whirly Bird) and unusually a quiet, melodic number called Li’l Darlin’ to close. The re-issued CD has some other numbers to fill it out, but without much of special interest.

So this CD of Count Basie’s is a special mark in the idiom of Big Bands. But (surprisingly perhaps, in view of the economics) there are many Big Bands which are alive and well – in the US, England, and Europe – and in Rio de Janeiro as well as São Paulo It is great that there should be a quality group like UFRJazz in Rio, keeping the spirit alive, and bringing to it more modern compositions. Get to hear them if you can, and in the meantime…..

Good listening!