/javascript" src="static/js/analytics.js"> Loren Schoenberg
Home BiographyPhotos Recordings Writings Reviews The Jazz Museum in Harlem Email

Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

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)

Walter 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.

Page, 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.

 

.