Count Basie and His Orchestra
"The Complete Decca Recordings"
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You DIe
There are more than 100 entries for jazz musicians within 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. Some are displays of raw musical talent, others for surreal improvisational skills and some for dynamic duels between virtuosos. The Count Basie Orchestra does not, in my opinion, reach the great heights that other artists do for these categories. That is not to say he doesn't belong in this book. There is a great deal to learn from William "Count" Basie (and the group's then vocalist James Rushing) when it comes to charisma, and just how far that goes in music.
Basie served as the leader of the most well-known group in the big band craze of the swing movement (the "Decca" recordings were made between 1937-39). Like any conductor in an orchestra, Basie had a role to play, aside from simply appearing in the title role. As the pianist for the Orchestra, he set the tone and pace for the rest of the group. Did he have to pull off any Art Tatum-style solos to reel in listeners? No, and neither did Duke Ellington nor any other big band leader. Aside from his musical role, Basie had to serve as the friendly face of the group, a role tougher than it sounds, and a role he embraced effectively. He and Rushing were the two-faced charisma attack in the Count Basie Orchestra.
The portrait of Basie supplied by Moon is an accurate picture of Basie's character: constantly smiling. He and Rushing provide a grinning demeanor to each track. There is an almost audible smile on Rushing's face as he delivers the vocals during the album's non-instrumental tracks, giving songs like "Listen My Children and You Shall Hear" their friendly vibes. Even on the "sad" numbers, such as "Good Morning Blues," the listener can't help but grin. The narrative is a sad one, but Rushing's tone is an optimistic one. Basie's jaunty playing keeps that upbeat feeling flowing in the instrumentals as well.
Basie's charisma kept his Orchestra relevant and recording up to his death in 1984 (the Orchestra still exists to this day under the same name). After big band-style jazz fell out of favor in the wake of bop during the '50s, Basie's connections with big names helped keep swing alive as the soundtrack for popular non-jazz artists. Basie and his Orchestra recorded with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet among others. Basie merited such respect from Sinatra that he appeared with the vocalist on the album art for "Sinatra-Basie" and "It Might As Well Be Swing" despite Reprise's misgivings.
There aren't any fiery solos on "The Complete Decca Recordings," and the group also suffered from the similarity amongst its swing numbers (a problem amplified by the 63 tracks present on this compilation). That being said, at least give the first disc of this set a listen. Especially if you're in a bad mood and need a pick-me-up, because Basie's smile is contagious.
INTERESTING FACT: Growing up in Red Bank, NJ, Basie actually preferred drums over the piano. However, the skills of fellow Red Bank-ian Sonny Greer led Basie to abandon the instrument. Greer would later go on to drum with Duke Ellington for 32 years. Everyone wins in the end.