I met a regular reader in person recently. “I don’t know if you are into requests, but you ought to do more music posts” was what he said to me. It dawned on me that I had not gone down that road in awhile and that it might be time to tank my stats again for the six of you who are really into this sort of thing. For the rest, stick around, you might like this one. After all, who doesn’t love the blues?
I will not go so far as to say that “Count Basie” is the answer to all of life’s questions, but he is the answer to more of them than you might first think. When we add the great singer Joe Williams who joined the Basie band for a series of sessions in 1955, the result was one of the great jazz albums of the era: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings. One of those tracks was called The Comeback. A title that was sort of fitting for the Basie band of the mid 1950s.
Count Basie was one of the pioneers of jazz as it transitioned into the swing era in the 1930s. I have shared one of his early records which was a small group effort that was a loose, free-swinging session by brilliant soloists who were just barely constrained by the song’s basic structure.
But by the late 1940s the Basie band had come on hard times, as was the case for pretty much every other big band of the generation. Times were changing. The kids who had gone out dancing in the big halls were now back from the war raising families, and even top bands found it hard to generate enough income to feed their many mouths. Also, musical styles were changing and a new breed of vocalists were becoming the stars, displacing the bandleaders from their former place atop the playbill.
Basie faced another challenge. His band had long been reliant on star instrumentalists who had become harder and harder to keep on the payroll for any length of time. 1948-50 may have been the nadir of the big band. Even the biggest names like Basie finally gave up and toured with a small group.
Count Basie, however, did something that few other jazzmen were doing in 1951: he formed a new sixteen-piece jazz band. Other than himself and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, personnel was all new, as was the band’s style. Instead of the freewheeling riff-and-solo style of old (which some wags have called Old Testament Basie), this New Testament band would rely on top quality arrangers and writers to keep the group in fresh material. This band would go on over the next twenty (or more) years to become known as one of the most consistently great big jazz outfits in history.
One thing that would not change was Basie’s love for playing the blues. Blues has become very popular in recent years and the early blues singers have become far more famous now than they ever were during their lives. But can a big band play the blues? When that big band was led by Basie, the answer was yes.
Joe Williams grew up on Chicago’s south side, singing gospel from an early age. By the late 1930s he started singing with the occasional band but gained no particular notariety until Basie caught his act around 1950. A few years later when Basie was looking to bring a singer on board, Williams would be that man, whom Basie often called his number one son. Williams’ deep baritone voice could be either tender or powerful. The few years spent with Basie in the ’50s would set Williams up for the rest of his life. Williams was 37 years old in 1955 and went on to have as and long and successful of a career as any jazz singer of his era.
Those of you who watched the Cosby Show in the ’80s might remember the character Grandpa Al – well that was Joe Williams.
This recording was of a song written and recorded by bluesman Memphis Slim a couple of years earlier. Where Slim’s version was fairly typical of blues recorded in the early 1950s, Basie takes the concept and adds layer upon layer of texture as can only be done when you have sixteen players at your disposal instead of three or four.
I usually recommend several listenings to a jazz record and this one is no different. First, notice the way this band is able to cook low and slow, just the way blues should be played, with each repeat of the theme adding something new. The middle third of the piece brings the mutes out of the horns and powers things up, with neither Williams nor the band overshadowing the other until things go back down to that low simmer that is so satisfying.
Next, listen for Basie’s piano. Where a young Basie was all over the keyboard, a more seasoned Basie became a leader who used his piano to add seasoning, much as a good cook knows to add a dash of sweetness or spice to bring out a recipe’s flavor. Basie’s piano is always there, yet blends into the background that you don’t really notice it unless you are listening for it. And when you do, it is so very good.
Listen also to the combination of the rhythm guitar of Freddie Green and the bass work of Eddie Jones. Unlike more modern playing, the bass does the interesting stuff while Green’s guitar keeps rhythm and adds texture. As an aside, Green joined the Basie band in 1937 and would stay beyond Basie’s death in 1984. In all those years, Green rarely ever took a solo but is still remembered as guy who set the standard for what a jazz rhythm guitarist should be.
Basie had a fondness for the tenor saxophone, so it should be no surprise that Frank Foster’s tenor has the only solo on the record. Foster was one of the Count’s two tenor players in the early to mid ’50s (Frank Wess being the other) and he is heard frequently on Basie’s recordings of the period.
I have not said much about Joe Williams’ vocal because I am not sure that anything really has to be said. He has both the smoothness to complement the band at low volume as well as the suds to stand up to it when the loud comes on. His is a voice that I never get tired of hearing.
Can a big band play the blues? The answer is answered by Williams’ final line in this record: “Oooohhhhh Yeaaaaaahhhh!”