One of my recurring topics on this blog is old jazz music. Some of you like these, others of you could care less. Or is it couldn’t care less? Either way, these pieces are hardly chartbusters for me.
I have thought about one thing, however, that may have some effect. I have decided that I have fallen into the trap of those who are really into something, whether it is sports or music or old cars. I have been listening to old jazz for years and have a tendency to get most excited about stuff that is pretty obscure – mainly because the obscure stuff is what I find to be most new and interesting.
It has occurred to me that those of you who read this are not deeply schooled in classic American jazz music and so perhaps another approach is called for. I have found that sometimes the things that have been highly popular in years past (if even a little over exposed) became that way because those things were so good to begin with. And some of these things which I might have considered overexposed twenty or thirty years ago are overexposed no longer. So with that, let’s consider “Cute.”
I have probably shared more stuff by Count Basie than by any other performer. Why is this? Perhaps because he was so prolific for so long, and perhaps because he is a favorite of mine. Either way this may be as good as any for an introduction to the peak of his second era of popularity in the late ’50s.
I have shared previously that Basie’s output has been divided between “Old Testament Basie” which lasted from the 1930s until he broke up his band in 1950 and “New Testament Basie” that began with a new 1951 band and continued to the Count’s death in 1984. Our last foray into New Testament Basie showcased the band’s chops for blues played with some power. This one shows another side: that of subtlety, nuance and clever playing that is simple and highly engaging.
Neil Hefti had been a trumpet player who eventually found his calling writing for other bands. He became well known in jazz circles in the mid 1940s as a player and writer for the highly regarded Woody Herman band of the time. In the 1950s Basie’s band relied more on written arrangements and less on the old school improvisation and no writer defined Basie in the ’50s more than did Hefti.
After a few isolated collaborations the duo released an album in early 1958 called, well, I am not quite sure what it was called. If you can figure it out from that album cover, let me know. It has usually just been called Atomic Basie. It is an excellent album, one of my favorites. It was evidently the favorite of a lot of people as it has made many “best” lists over the years.
The pair followed that album with another shortly thereafter which was released later the same year – Basie Plays Hefti. This second album has not gotten the accolades of the first, but Cute seems to have jumped off of the disc and into immortality all on its own. It is that rare combination that is satisfying to both experienced jazz fans and to casual listeners.
This piece begins with a series of short, muted phrases by the brass section separated by relaxed use of brushes on the drums by Sonny Payne. The melody carried by that muted brass is a very simple one that could have easily become a pop standard if treated differently.
Basie always had a great reed section and his 1950s bands were early examples of the populaity of the jazz flute, played here by Frank Wess. Wess, considered one of the top jazz flautists of all time, displays a style that is a great mix of technical skill and of lyricism in this solo that moves naturally from its beginning, through the middle and on to its end.
Let me interject here that I am not generally a fan of drum solos. The breaks in the main theme and the one that follows Wess’ flute may be one of the most extensive drum features on anything Basie ever recorded. But this is not a piece for Sonny Payne to show off his mad drumming chops. It is, instead, a fun subdued and restrained bit of playing that never lets go of the beat and which transitions beautifully into the next lap wherein the Basie saxophones take their turn.
Marshall Royal was the band’s lead alto sax player until well into the ’70s and his sound atop the saxes is unmistakable. The high quality of this band’s playing shows in this part of the record as it is crisp and clean and completely together at all times, even as the notes slide and bend and trill their way through this part of the arrangement.
Another unusual thing is that Basie takes virtually no solo time on his piano. Other than the dainty two or three note introduction to each phrase in the opening and closing theme, all of Basie’s keyboard action is heard backing up Wess on flute and the sax ensembles’ efforts. I always find Basie’s “piano punctuation” (a phrase I made up) to be a delight, especially when he walks up and down the low notes with those pudgy sausage fingers.
“I think I have heard this somewhere” is something that you may be thinking. You could be right because an abbreviated version of this piece was used in Jerry Lewis’ 1961 movie The Errand Boy. In that particular scene Jerry plays several “air instruments” as he kills time in the kitchen while this song plays. That the song was three years old by the time the movie was filmed shows us how popular it became with the adult public of the time.
Simple, relaxed and fun are how I would describe this recording. It was probably not a demanding thing to play, but then Basie and his band always made things sound easy. Basie and Hefti really made for a perfect pairing – Hefti could write things knowing how to best bring out the band’s unique skills and the Basie band had the skills and imagination to bring out the best in any arrangement – and add to it with stellar solo work and other little touches that were just second nature to this group. The Basie-Hefti synergy was something that the Count was able to parlay into a series of successful albums with top singers, sales of which undoubtedly allowed the band to continue to perform long after most other big bands had collapsed.
As a bonus recommendation, you must listen to the 1962 album Sinatra-Basie which brought The Chairman, The Count and Neil Hefti together in one of the best things that Sinatra ever did.
If in this piece you detect a little bit of a TV theme song quality, you could be forgiven. Neil Hefti went on to a lucrative career writing music for TV and movies, including theme and background music for The Odd Couple and (of all things) Batman. And we should not forget how music like this continued to rule in Hollywood until early in the 1970s so there were many others peddling a similar sound long after both Basie and Hefti had moved on.
And if you think that this clean, fresh sound is perhaps a bit generic for its era, I would suggest that this is only because this style and sound were made so popular by this duo that other performers were co-opting the sound well into the 1960s twilight of the big jazz bands. The piece has a bit of a crossover quality to it as it takes solid late ’50s jazz (with a cool west coast flavor) and adds something of a pop sensibility. I still find it strange that this was never released as a single, but then opportunities for jazz bands to do well in the pop charts was dwindling drastically by late 1958.
There were few established jazz bands that changed their character more completely from the 1940s to the 1950s than Basie’s. The band’s fresh and innovative sounds of the ’50s have held up remarkably well and still make for enjoyable listening. The piece is called Cute, but that only scratches the surface. Because it is so much more than that.