Count Basie & His Orchestra: Exactly Like You

“Exactly Like You” has been a jam session staple for years, but when Count Basie recorded it on his second Decca session, it was still fairly new territory. Despite recordings by Louis Armstrong, the Casa Loma Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Trio, the song had failed to catch on with jazz musicians. However in 1937, the floodgates opened as several jazz groups recorded versions of the song. Basie’s was the first version made that year, and its joyful nature made it a classic. The arrangement is probably by Fletcher Henderson or Don Redman, but Basie’s band was not filled with talented readers and some of the section work is rather sloppy. But one didn’t listen to Basie for skillfully played arrangements; Basie’s was a soloist’s band, and many of the band’s stars play excellent solos on this track. After the band introduction, Basie plays the melody for a few bars before moving into a solo featuring his minimalist stride style. On the bridge, Jack Washington gets his first recorded baritone sax solo and we can hear that he could play as lightly as Lester Young, even on the bigger horn. The band plays the written parts for the next chorus and leads into Jimmy Rushing’s vocal chorus, and just as Washington had learned from Young, Rushing had learned from the band’s new female vocalist, Billie Holiday. This may the most Billie-esque chorus Rushing ever recorded. Like Billie, Rushing flattens out much of the melody to a single note, and then he rides that note in a great display of rhythmic vitality. Buck Clayton offers a running commentary along with the saxes, and by the time the chorus ends, the band is swinging mightily. And that’s when Lester Young enters with a dancing half-chorus that just adds to the excitement. Lester’s sound was still quite novel at this time—his first recording was made only 5 months earlier—but it is the placement of the notes rather than the notes themselves that make it such a catalyst for increasing the band’s swing. And while Bobby Moore’s brief trumpet solo is well-played, it sounds like he struggles to maintain the energy that Lester created. Nonetheless, there's plenty of energy left for the band to play a spirited coda.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Taxi War Dance

Perhaps his finest moment on record, Young is probably also (mostly) responsible for “Taxi War Dance’s” very simple head arrangement, though he only gets half the composer credit. The first of his solos is particularly ingenious: It begins sounding like a cohesive and hyper-lyrical 12-bar blues, but soon reveals itself to be “Willow Weep for Me” changes. Throughout this and his later solos (trading fours with the full band and Basie), he remains light as a feather—yet he continuously reaches outward with his phrasing and harmonies, and upward with his range until it’s genuinely hard to remember that Young isn’t an alto player. Sandwiched in is a superlative solo by trombonist Dickie Wells that nearly equals Young for lyricism; it feels like an aside, however, in what is clearly Prez’s show.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kansas City Six: Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Eddie Durham’s arrangement for this 1922 standard is such a perfect one for the swing era that it should be in every jazz education curriculum in the world. But the fairly simple arrangement is also a deceptive one: trumpet and clarinet play the head together over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but then tenor saxophone and electric guitar erupt in the solos. Doesn’t that make seven, not six? The answer, of course, is that Lester Young plays both sax and clarinet on the record, and it’s no surprise to hear that his clarinet is as distinctive as the tenor—breathy, soft, high, and endlessly lyrical. Interestingly, while Young’s originality continues to flourish in his tenor solo (who knew relaxed rhythms and slightly displaced harmonies could sound so daring?), Clayton’s relentless melodic imagination gives him quite a run for his money. Durham, here playing one of the first electric guitar solos on record, is no slouch on the harmonies, either. Nonetheless, there’s something special about hearing that one of the great instrumental masters had actually mastered two instruments.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

A sort of dry run for the recently signed, but not-yet-recorded Count Basie Orchestra, the “Jones-Smith” session unleashed what could be called the Lester Young Effect. The tenor sax had been hard-driven and cutting in the preceding era of jazz—the world according to Coleman Hawkins—but Young, in his first time at the recording microphone, sounded light and carefully plotted without sacrificing the instrument’s muscle. In truth, Young’s is just one of many innovations heard on “Oh, Lady Be Good”: Basie’s soft-spoken minimalism and Jones’ hi-hat-intensive drumming were also new ground. Still, it’s hard to get past Lester, weaving and bobbing his way through both comps and a featured solo like a helium balloon in the breeze. Jazz would never be the same.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andy Kirk: Walkin' and Swingin'

"Walkin' and Swingin'" is an excellent example of the work of this great Kansas City-based band and its principal arranger, Mary Lou Williams. It was not uncommon during the swing era for a band to be formed under the leadership of one individual, only to be subsequently taken over and re-named by another leader. Such was the fate of The Dark Clouds of Joy, originally led by a trumpeter named Terrence Holder, who in 1929 was forced to abandon his band due to family obligations. The band was re-named The Twelve Clouds of Joy under the leadership of Andy Kirk, a self-effacing but savvy tuba and bass sax player who had joined the Holder band in 1926. The Kirk band reached its creative peak when pianist Mary Lou Williams became the de-facto musical director. Kirk's band was slightly smaller and lighter sounding than most of the increasingly brass-heavy bands of the swing era and developed its own musical identity due to Mary Lou Williams' writing. She was also one of the band's two main soloists along with the great but short-lived tenor man Dick Wilson. The tune is a 32 bar Williams original stated with a light two-beat feel that shifts to a walking bass at the bridge. The theme is followed by a full chorus sax soli with trumpet lead that is beautifully written and executed. The last eight bars of this section contains the main motif of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm' A 'Ning," which is fascinating considering Williams' well-known history as a mentor to the young Monk. Williams turns in a light-fingered stride-influenced chorus with the brilliant Dick Wilson taking the bridge. The out chorus is subtle and swinging with none of the razzle-dazzle hoopla usually employed by writers of such passages at the time.

July 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kansas City Five (featuring Count Basie & Lester Young): Don't Be That Way

John Hammond, that extraordinary jazz entrepreneur, record producer, and scion of the Vanderbilt family organized and hosted the historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in late ’38. It celebrated the music of African-Americans and presented it in America’s premier concert hall. And if you’re presenting swing to the world, who better to have than Basie and the boys?!

After a couple of full band tunes, some songs were played by small groups from the Basie band; this was one of them. The track has distinctive opening bars in which on this special occasion, Count Basie plays more 'up front' than usual, with perhaps more power and dynamics. Lester Young (“Prez”) offers interjections and accents with his inimitable tenor sax tone. The Count and Prez continue at the forefront, doing a kind of piano-sax dance that excellently articulates the body of the tune’s music. A little past mid-way, Buck Clayton takes the lead on muted trumpet, at first in mid-range, using the mute for subtle effects, with a fine syncopated rhythmic feel. Then he soars higher and more dramatically to complete a very nicely constructed solo. Prez then takes the hand-off, blowing his sax in a more robust, deep-toned manner than usual (more like Coleman Hawkins), after a few bars transitioning back into a dual lead with Basie to end the song.

A live recording in 1938 was an iffy project, so the recording quality isn’t perfect; but for that time, it is more than well done. And it is a treat to hear Basie, Young, Clayton & co. playing live in that historic concert. Also, it’s an interesting tune that is a bit different than usual fare for Basie and the boys.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Parker's Mood

Bird’s playing on "Parker’s Mood" is often referred to as the greatest saxophone solo ever recorded. Parker opens with a fanfare, and John Lewis follows with a piano intro. Then Parker maintains a constant thread throughout, sustaining the song’s tension and purity, never doubling back or repeating a phrase. Lewis’ solo features touches of Bud Powell’s lush technique, and Parker returns on the back end, winding down the tune and ending with the same opening fanfare. But Lewis has the final say, finishing oddly on an unresolved chord. Bird is completely exposed here, and his emotional pain is all too evident. Five years later, in December 1953, King Pleasure added words to the song, grimly foreshadowing Parker’s own funeral. "Parker’s Mood" remains one of Bird’s most lyrical and enduring blues lines.

March 04, 2008 · 3 comments

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Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

Swing Era rhythm sections specialized in a monotonous thumping not unlike men with flyswatters beating determinedly on stacks of old newspapers. In this case, however, fortune intervened. First, the studio was too small to accommodate a bass drum. Second, no rhythm guitarist was present. These absences make the jazz lover's heart grow fonder, allowing for an uncommon buoyancy ideally suited to Lester Young's lighter-than-air excursions. Thus, after Basie tinkles his way through the melody, Pres glides atop the Gershwin tune for two glorious, untethered choruses, as effortlessly graceful as an eagle out for a Sunday cruise. Oh, Lester be good!

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Mary Lou Williams: Clean Pickin'

Mary Lou Williams didn't need bass and drums to keep the dancers shaking and shimmying. With her driving, two-fisted piano playing, Mary Lou was a one-woman band. Bassist Booker Collins and drummer Ben Thigpen come along for the ride on "Clean Pickin'" but Mary Lou sets the pace from start to finish. The Kansas City scene attracted many of the hardest swinging pianists of the era -- Count Basie, Jay McShann and Pete Johnson among others -- but Mary Lou could challenge the best of them. A very hot performance from a master of pre-bop piano stylings.

November 26, 2007 · 1 comment

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Hot Lips Page: Lafayette

Hot Lips Page departed the Basie band shortly before the group left Kansas City for New York. Page hooked up with Louis Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser, who promised to make the trumpeter into a star. But Page's dreams of becoming "the next Louis Armstrong" failed to materialize, although he had all the tools for jazz success: fluid technique, a strong sense of swing, an energetic solo style, and could even (like Louis) sing a blues or popular song with aplomb. By the early 1940s Page had stepped back from fronting his own band, settling for a sideman gig with Artie Shaw. He spent most of the remaining years of his career, before his death at 46, freelancing. "Lafayette" finds Page in top form, stoking the fires of a hard-swinging band with his trumpet pyrotechnics. Though stardom eluded Page, jazz cognoscenti still prize his classic recordings.

November 25, 2007 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Dickie's Dream

Four days after Nazi Germany invaded Poland to kick off World War II, Count Basie's Kansas City Seven invaded a New York record studio with less earthshaking but still memorable results. After a simple, twice- repeated 8-bar riff, the K.C. 7 casually tosses the ball around like minimalists at a picnic. (Tip: BYO every- thing.) There are genial solos from a cup-muted Clayton, bubbly Wells, light-fingered Basie and, best of all, the saxophonist honored annually on President's Day (third Monday of February). The world at large may've been determinedly hell-bent, but Lester Young kept his cool when all about were losing theirs.

November 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Andy Kirk: Walkin' & Swingin'

When orchestrating her compositions, Mary Lou Williams never felt constrained by the sectional mindset that dominated big bands. She combined unmatched instruments the way a painter mixes colors from different parts of her palette. Here, she slyly draws us in with an opening chorus led by the saxes, with obbligato brass, except on the bridge when the roles are reversed. Boilerplate; straight from Arranging 101. Then she drops the other shoe, with a proto-boppish chorus-long unison to confound the most seasoned arranger. Mary Lou Williams is the least celebrated major talent in jazz history.

November 12, 2007 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Shoe Shine Boy

By convention, Swing Era jazzmen improvised harmonically, grinding through chord progressions as implacably as a train on its tracks, never veering from their predetermined path. Which, to Lester Young, was much too rigid. His frisky, mischievous solos kittenishly skimmed the harmonic cream, leaving him and his listeners poised, as musicologist Scott DeVeaux observes, "to savor the pleasant ambiguities of the moment." Here, in his inaugural recording, Pres juts from the old-fashioned surface of Basie's stride piano like bas relief, projecting his individuality without overshadowing anyone. Lester was part of the group, yet slightly apart from it. The first modernist.

November 12, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bennie Moten: Moten Swing

It is difficult to believe that this recording was made on the cusp of 1933. Basie’s later spare style (complete with Page’s driving bass) is easily recognized and the recording quality is sensational – crisp, clear, even McWashington’s brushes are quite audible. The bridge of the first chorus, cleverly truncated, features spine-tingling, shouting brass played into metal derbies and sounding like they are in the room with the listener. The arrangement cleverly builds with the saxophones first sketching out Walter Donaldson’s hit “You’re Driving Me Crazy” (the chords of which form the basis here) before essaying the famous riff (with Barefiled’s obbligato) known by many as a swing era anthem. A sudden key change introduces Hot Lips Page who solos in a coolish un-Armstrong manner. Finally the full compact ensemble plays the familiar riff melody, bridge and all. Notice Basie doubling his left hand on the studio celeste which, along with Page’s beautifully registered bass, brings to a close a record that has it all.

November 10, 2007 · 1 comment

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Count Basie: One O'Clock Jump

With his customary sparse piano, wily Bill B. sets the stage for this easygoing anthem of the Swing Era. Big-toned tenorman Herschel Evans takes the first solo, followed by slurry-toned trombonist George Hunt. Next, light-footed tenorman Lester Young weaves among muted trumpets with the grace of a pickpocket at a Fraternal Order of Police convention. After suave trumpeter Buck Clayton takes the final solo, wily Bill B. cues the sectional soli that served as a model for every big band west of Long Island and east of Catalina: riffing saxes, pinpointing trombones and punctuating trumpets. When one o'clock jumps like this, there's no bedtime for Basie.

November 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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