Basie/Ellington Liner Notes
No jazz band, regardless of its size, has ever topped either
the Ellington or Basie bands, and the prospect of a "battle"
between these two giants still thrills. Here you have sixteen
classic performances, based on the blues, and the juxtapositions
continue to reverberate even after several listenings (to
add to the randomness, you can always use the "shuffle"
feature on your CD player!). Jazz, as Martin Williams noted
in his indispensable The Jazz Tradition, 2nd rev. ed. (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1993) is at its root rhythm.
A jazz band is always in dialogue with its rhythm section,
and the best rhythm sections blend together and strive for
the same unanimity that the brass or reeds do. Although the
drums are usually the focus of the lay listener, it is the
bass that is at the true root of the rhythm section. "In
jazz, the bass is protean in its identity and function. That
jazz bass is percussive, harmonic and lyric. It is the Southern
end of the music, the bottom, the lower frequency...Everything
sits on top of the bass - the singer, if there is one; the
trumpets, the saxophones, the trombones, the piano, and the
drums. The bass is down there below all. It helps to define
and interpret the form and keep the tempo in place; that voice
of the lower frequencies responds to ensemble inventions and
inventions of its own; that Southern end of the music helps
accent and extend rhythms." - Stanley Crouch - Always
In Pursuit (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998)
Page (heard on all the Basie tracks) and Jimmie Blanton (heard
on 4 of the Ellington sides - the others, save one, feature
his disciple Oscar Pettiford) galvanized the rhythm sections
of their respective bands by an approach that both led and
followed at the same time. They could switch from a musical
attitude of action to reaction within a quarter note and it
is fair to say that either band never sounded the same without
them. Page was in fact the major domo of Basie's famed "All-American
Rhythm Section". Indeed, Basie's career got its first
significant boost when he joined Page's Blue Devils in 1928.
The only band to give Bennie Moten's more-well known unit
a run for their money, Page's band was destined for hard times.
Their demise came when Moten stole his stars (Basie, arranger/guitarist/trombonist
Eddie Durham, vocalist Jimmy Rushing and trumpeter Hot Lips
Page) one by one. For Walter Page, it turned into a real-life
version of if you can't beat em, join em,"
and when he did the Moten band created a new pinnacle in big
band jazz with their legendary 1932 recordings. Also featured
in that edition of the Moten band was tenor saxophonist Ben
Webster, who, as we shall see shortly, cast a profound shadow
over both the Basie and Ellington bands.
in an interview with Frank Driggs, credited Ellington's bassist
of the '20s and early '30s, Wellman Braud as his primary inspiration.
On all his recordings, and there were hundreds of them by
the early '30s. Ellington went out of his way to have recording
engineers place Braud's bass close to a microphone. The result
was the impression that many recordings by the band could
be heard as a concerto for jazz orchestra and double bass.
Braud played a variety of instruments around his native New
Orleans, and didn't pick up the bass until he moved to Chicago
in 1917 at the age of 26. Consequently, his playing always
had a rudimentary quality that, coupled with his extraordinary
drive and implacable confidence, suited the still evolving
Ellington ensemble perfectly. He freelanced, toured Europe
and joined Ellington in 1927. Indeed, it was after hearing
Braud in Chicago in the late teens that the young Walter Page
(b. 1900) decided to make music his career. Proficient on
the baritone saxophone and tuba, Page played around Kansas
City with a variety of bands (included a long stint with an
early Moten unit), attended Kansas University at Lawrence,
and by the mid-'20s had turned a show band he had toured with,
into the Blue Devils.
After several starts and stops as a bandleader himself,
Basie left Kansas City for Chicago and then New York in late
1936, and didn't impress. To shore up the weak spots, Basie
took his fledgling unit out on the road, replaced a handful
of players, and by mid-1937 had the sterling band he became
famous for. The aforementioned "All-American Rhythm Section"
(Basie, guitarist Freddie Green, Page and drummer Jo Jones)
stayed together through 1943, when Page left. Jones was drafted
the following year, and they didn't re-unite until 1946. These
recordings are the last they made as a regular working unit,
and every quarter note is a joy. By looking into Count Basie's
fascinating recording of "South" we can learn quite
a bit both the Basie and Ellington bands.
The blues forms the basis of this collection, and although
some are not blues in the formal or harmonic sense, they are,
at the very least, mood-kissing cousins. The philosophical
bent of each band was determined by its leader, each in their
own fashion. Ellington, as composer and musical intellectual,
brought a high level of abstraction and irony to the conventions
of the day. The soloists became his spokesmen, and he created
contexts within which they at could find and exploit their
own instrumental individuality while simultaneously realizing
Ellington's overarching emotional/musical designs. Basie operated
under radically different aesthetic principles. The creator
of his own immediately identifiable and popular convention
(one that by the mid-'50s had become an artistic prison, albeit
an ornately furnished one) Basie rarely expressed a desire
to stray from it. But within his more closely ordered musical
universe, up until the breakup of the original band in 1949,
there was always room for the odd soloist to break through
the status quo and at least attempt to raise some eyebrows.
Webster worshipped the same pianists (and was a rough-hewed
strideman himself) that Basie did - starting with James P.
Johnson - and this conceptual indebtedness to the orchestral
potential of the jazz piano also sparked the young Eddie Ellington.
"South" is a rare record for the Basie band, which
usually couched its abstractions in more subtle terms (the
odd woodblock from drummer Jo Jones, the willful harmonic
contradictions of a Sweets Edison, Dicky Wells or Lester Young).
Here the clipped brass phrasing of the melody and a sotto-voce
Gonsalves in his best crooning 1940 Webster mode are butted
up against some screamingly, almost dissonant ensemble shakes
that jar the "quaint" mood that had been so gently
created. Not that there hadn't been sudden dynamic shifts
in Basie's music - indeed, the alternation of his quiet piano
tinklings after a loud band passage had already become a signal
aesthetic pattern of his by this time - what makes "South"
so radical is the change in emotional attitude and the just-as-sudden
return to the muted brass that began the piece. This sort
of aesthetic complexity was to become a calling card of Thelonious
Monk's, who brilliantly blended both Basie and Ellington's
concepts with those of the aforementioned Mr. Johnson.
Finally, there is the free-ranging bass of Page up under
the opening and closing choruses, in a way that bears direct
comparison to the work of Jimmie Blanton on the Ellington
sides. Eighteen years Page's junior, Blanton exemplified a
new level of instrumental competency and harmonic sophistication.
After tooling around with territory bands in the Southwest,
Blanton joined Ellington in October 1939. Only with the band
for two years (he died in 1942, aged 23), Blanton nonetheless
recorded prolifically with Ellington in a variety of formats
- duos, small bands, and over 130 big band sides. For an indication
of his versatility as a player, hear him on "Concerto
For Cootie". Although Ellington uses him at times as
a sixth saxophone or as a fourth trombone, Blanton imbues
every measure with his own personality and sound, and fulfills
his functional role in the rhythm section (as defined by Crouch
above) in a fashion that still resonates to the contemporary
bassist. Although Ellington had realized all of his great
innovations as a composer by 1939, what has become known as
the Blanton/Webster band continues to hold a very special
place in the hearts of Ellingtonophiles even in the face of
all the great recordings he made subsequently. 1939/40 was
also a significant period for Count Basie - he added a fourth
trumpet, a fifth saxophone, and made some more personnel changes
that finally gave him the ensemble perfection he would need
to measure up to the Ellingtons, Goodmans, Calloways and Shaws
of the big band world. The 1947 edition of the band heard
here remains largely forgotten in the Basie annals, but listening
to it back to back time and again with Ellington reveal it
to be one of his very best bands. The spirit of Kansas City
is still there thanks to the All-American Rhythm Section and
a bevy of risk-taking improvisers.