Album 9 – The Atomic Mr Basie

ALBUM TITLE: The Atomic Mr Basie

ARTIST NAME: Count Basie and His Orchestra

YEAR OF RELEASE: 1958

Favourite Song:

Holly: The Flight of the Foo Birds

Kelly: The Flight of the Foo Birds

ALBUM HISTORY:

This album was originally called Basie, and was also known as E=MC2. It’s one of Basie’s most famous and critically acclaimed albums. One of the reasons for this is that for its time, this album was quite forward looking for big bands. It also won Best Jazz Performance and Best Performance by a Dance Band at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards, which is kind of cool. Most of the tracks are composed and arranged by Neal Hefti who was quite a big deal in the jazz composition and arranging world. You may recognize some of his signature tunes on this album, like Flight of the Foo Birds, Splank, and Lil’ Darlin. The band also features some heavy hitters like Thad Jones on trumpet, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on reeds, Basie on piano, with Eddie Jones on bass. 

ARTIST HISTORY:

William James “Count” Basie formed the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935 and led them for almost 50 years. Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey to musical parents. Basie always dreamed of a life of travelling and performing in some capacity, and spent much of his high school years at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, cleaning the theater in exchange for free admission to performances. He quickly learned to improvise music that would be appropriate to the different acts and silent movies that came through town. Basie was great at piano, but always preferred drums. Weirdly, in this same small town of Red Bank, lived Sonny Greer, who later famously became Duke Ellington’s drummer, and who discouraged Basie from pursuing drums. At age 15, he decided to focus solely on piano. 

Basie moved to Harlem in 1920, which was a hotbed of jazz. He went to clubs and watched Duke Ellington’s early band, and a lot of the other musicians making the scene in those days. He eventually started touring with Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Through these tours he was able to go to Kansas City, St Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago. Basie was able to work his way up, sometimes stepping in for other band leaders for a few months. Basie eventually formed his own nine-piece band, the Barons of Rhythm with Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), and Lester Young (tenor saxophone). When this band played at a local radio station, the announcer wanted to give Basie’s name some pizazz and added the word Count, thus putting him up there with jazz royalty like Duke Ellington. 

Basie’s band continued to tour, play shows, and record regularly from the mid 1930s all the way up to the end of World War II. They collaborated with Billie Holiday and other singers. By the time the war was over, the public’s adoration for big bands had melted away, and Basie disbanded the group. He played in combos for a while, and then in 1952, reformed his group as a 16 piece orchestra. In 1958, the band made its first European tour, and this is when Neal Hefti started to provide arrangements. The group continued to record and tour through the 1960s. 

Count Basie died of pancreatic cancer in 1984 at the age of 79.

FACTOID CORNER:

Basie has an asteroid named after him: Asteroid 35394 Countbasie.

Holly’s review:

Ah, what a nice treat to sit back and listen to a big band album this week! And one of Count Basie’s strongest albums too! It was fun to hear some of Neal Hefti’s back catalogue as well. This album was nice and varied with a lot of twists and turns, while remaining faithful to Count Basie’s love of a driving rhythm. There’s some great playing and a really solid rhythm section on display. 

The album starts with a great opener, The Kid from Red Bank, which was written to feature Basie (who’s from Red Bank), and does his characteristic off beat accents and shimmery high note stuff while the band stays super energetic behind him. It’s a great way to open a record, and really does show off Basie’s great piano playing. 

Duet is next up and is not a tune I know. It’s a nice slower number with again a lot of emphasis on the rhythm section, but this time with muted trumpets taking over the melody. It screams Neal Hefti, and sounds  (like a lot of his arrangements do) like a song that’s a lot more fun to listen to than to play. And then we get slower with After Supper and some subtone saxophone section. This song is nice, chill, very Hefti-esque, with a super foo foo tenor sax solo. Speaking of foo foo – we then get to Flight of the Foo Birds, which is just a joyful little tune that I’ll always love! I really like the progression of this album, which starts off centered on Basie, and then adds the rhythm section, the trumpets, saxes. It’s a cool way of building up through the first few numbers. This one would be a great one to add to the collection!

Kelly’s review:

Admittedly and ashamedly, I don’t know a lot about Count Basie or his music.  When we were all getting into big band music and swing music in high school (thanks Gap khakis commercial), I knew the name Count Basie but I didn’t really know anything he did.  I couldn’t even tell you which instrument he played (turns out he plays piano).  I asked my bestie who has a far broader knowledge of jazz than I do about Count Basie, and he said ‘laaaaaaid back.  If a jazz band teacher wanted to teach the kids not to rush, learn a Count Basie song.”.  So I am really listening to Count Basie in earnest for the first time!

My first impression was, wow, the musicians in the band are really tight!  The levels are really good, no one obnoxiously trying to stick out or steal the show.  It sounds like either they practice together a ton, or they’re all really good at listening.  I really like the opening number Kid From Red Bank.  It’s really good way to set the chill mood for the tracks to come.  Maybe some of the reason for why the Count was so laid back and his band was so tight, was because Basie was remembered for being relaxed, fun-loving, witty, enthusiastic and very respectful of his musicians and their opinions – and that makes me like him even more!

After Supper is definitely that chill, laid back feel that my bestie was telling me about.  Smooth and slow, it makes me think of drinking red wine by candlelight with a loved one.  My favourite song on the record is Flight of the Foo Birds.  It has a really catchy, memorable melody (and a cool name!) and it reminds me of the days that I was really into acapella vocal jazz, as Swedish acapella super group The Real Group sang it.  I also really like Splanky – I think we may have performed it in high school jazz band? – but it’s another one of Basie’s cool, slinky tunes, like liquid mercury, shimmery , slow and smooth coating every surface. 

I think for me where the album falters is also in the thing that makes it great – its laid-backness.  I found myself losing interest and almost tuning out after Splanky.  L’il Darlin’ for me is an unremarkable closing track.  I’m not saying it’s bad, because it’s not, it’s simply underwhelming.  Despite this shortcoming, it’s not enough for me to discard the album, because I think it’s strong enough to land a spot in my personal collection.

Average grade out of 10:

Holly: 8/10

Kelly: 8/10

Link to the album on Spotify:

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