SOME ARRANGERS SEEM made to order for certain bands. Don Redman and Benny Carter and Horace Henderson fitted a variety of organizations in the twenties and thirties in this way. Billy Strayhorn was obviously born to write for the Duke Ellington band as Sy Oliver was to write for Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson for Benny Goodman. And now it seems that Neal Hefti has found his ban in Count Basie and Count his composer and arranger in Neal.
Like Fletcher’s writing for Benny’s musicians, Neal’s suits the tastes and temperaments of the Basie men in every sort of detail. It provides settings for soloists which bring them out bar by bar, texture by texture, idea by idea as they rarely have been before. It is a style of scoring at least as much intuitive as it is instructed in the thinking and playing procedures of these jazzmen. Some, either because of a similar set of likes and dislikes or because of his keen ear or considerable playing and writing experience, Neal knows the right figures to make Frand Wess blow his most forceful flute, Joe Newman his most swinging trumpet, Snookie Young his most soulful horn and Thad Jones his most elegant. One way or another, he has provided Marshall Royal with an adequate background for his large alto sound and given the Basie tenormen, Billy Mitchell and Frank Foster, a spacious alley in which to chase each other and found room for Al Grey’s big, guttural trombone pushes and pulls.
It’s not a very complicated course of action, providing the Basie musicians with proper material. It does not involve tricky contrivances or writing in a notably obscure manner. It is, rather, a suiting of figure and tempo, soloist and section, mood and mode so that it comes out Royal and Newman, Young and Jones, Foster and Mitchell and Wess – in a word, Basie.
What I mean is apparent in the first lightly blasting measures of the first track of the first, Has Anyone Here Seen Basie? From those sumptuous ensemble sounds, a little like a set of restrained roars, Marshall and Joe take off, the band settles into a steady medium tempo and before you know it is half-what through the infectious second tune, one for once appropriately called Cute. Lightness is all here, lightness in Frank Wess’s flute playing and Sonny Payne’s brushwork, lightness in the opening band playing and the quick, decisive, delightful two-note ending. After a suitable pause, they go right into the quite different, handsomely halting ballad called Pensive Miss, in which all the reflection is Snookie Young’s, but not without a few suggestions and echoes and interruptions from the other trumpets.
Sloo Foot is mostly in Joe Newman’s hands, either alone or responding to the band in some deft question-and-answer measures which in their precision anticipate the fine, bright, and deliberate last statement of the riff with which the piece comes to a close. The side concludes with a well-made tune, It’s Awf’ly Nice To Be With You, very much Marshall Royal’s and the other saxes’ too, a rich display of the Basie reeds made more sumptuous in the organ harmonies which unite all the band’s sections.
Scoot is to the second side what Cute is to the first. It is almost all muted and fluted, Frank Wess paired with tightly plugged trumpet bells to make a charming exercise in relaxed but closely confined sound. In the following A little Tempo, Please, the answer to the request is a medium bounce, with Al Grey filling in the zigs to the band’s zags, all of it loosely, lopingly organized until it is brought to a solid ending in canon by the brass. Gentility is again the mode and the manner in Late Date, which is Frank Wess’s and the reeds’ and very sweet to the ear.
Count Down begins with that brief but enthusiastic sort of employment of the band’s tonsils which used to elicit from Woody Herman a shouting “Gleeeeeee Club!” when his musicians had to sing out in this way. It’s the familiar atomic reverse count, 10 down to 0, which brings the tempo up and the tenormen out: Billy Mitchell chases Frank Foster, blows a few notes in duet with him and everybody swings, alone or together with the rest. The beat is again the meat of Bag-A’ Bones, in which Al Grey has some fetching slides of his horn to pull and the other trombones have an engaging staccato figure to cut and once again, clearly, a ball is had by all.
The last of the lot is Thad Jones’ miniature horse opera, Pony Tail, and a beautifully curried one at that. It’s a riff piece of the kind that in the old days would have immediately been snapped up by a dozen other bands and made its way quickly into the stocks, to be played by every outfit around the country that pretended to play jazz. No other, then or now, however, could turn the solo measures over to anyone who would be a match for Thad, whose opulent sound has never been caught so well on records as here.
Altogether, this is a sounding record. As in the previous Basie collection in this series, the band has been brought back alive. It is again startling, to hear the full power of the full band and to have again the dynamic brilliances of brass and reeds preserved intact. It is a wonderful experience to hear Frank Wess’s flute vibrating like the wind instrument it is and not at all overshadowed by the rest of this loud, proud band, and it is a considerable kick to be able to observe, in detail, the nuances of tone and minu8tiae of technique which separates the trumpet sounds of Snookie Young and Joe Newman and Thad Jones from each other. When Basie plays Hefti and is recorded this way, it is an event, one that I am pleased to able to salute.