Count Basie | The Atomic Mr Basie (1958)
Swing / Big Band 39:30
Thunderous applause filled the auditorium as I made my way to the front of the stage. I could feel the sense of pride well up inside of me, as I approached my adoring audience and took my bow. They had seen me in action and, approving of my performance, were giving me the admiration I deserved. But did I? Because as an actor, while I can take the credit, how much really belongs to me? I didn’t write the script; I hadn’t made and fitted the costume; I hadn’t created the set or the lighting; and I had been guided to where I should stand, how I should speak, even what gestures to make, by another person. All I can do when I take to the stage is hope that I can remember the words and don’t fall over. At what point is this down to any talent I may kid myself that I possess?
It can be the same with musicians as it is with actors. We have already seen how Frank Sinatra’s relationship with Nelson Riddle had brought him renewed success; and even a band of near untouchable greatness such as The Beatles were undoubtedly reliant as much on the skills of producer George Martin as they were on their own formidable talents. As for Count Basie and his band, they had at their side the work of composer and arranger Neal Hefti. Having started playing in bands himself, Hefti had moved into more of a backstage role by the mid-1940s and, in 1950, began working with Basie. The results proved sensational, pushing the musician back into the spotlight, with critics raving about his work. But who is the real genius behind the work?
A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing two of our finest actors performing in one of the great plays of the 20th Century. Settling in to watch Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan tackle Samuel Beckett’s wonderful Waiting for Godot, I knew I would be in for a treat. I have seen Patrick Stewart in performance a couple of times and he is an outstanding actor; he commands the stage, bringing a strength of presence that draws your eyes towards him. If I ever get the chance to see him again, I will gladly take it, knowing I will be witnessing one of Britain’s finest in action. And yet…when the man behind Gandalf entered stage right, something rather special happened. Ian McKellan was a revelation. I knew he was good – he’s Sir Ian, for goodness sake! – but he completely blew his fellow thespian out of the water. Don’t get me wrong; Patrick gave a fine performance that, on its own, would still be one of the best I have ever seen. But there was something about McKellan that extended far beyond this. Yes, the script was sublime, the staging was wonderful and the direction perfect. But McKellan gave something more; he turned the whole experience into something magical. To this day, my overriding memory of that performance is witnessing the world’s greatest actor in the flesh. While I can claim that all an actor needs to do is remember his lines and not fall over (occasionally I’ve managed to get through a performance without doing either), a truly great master of the craft brings so much more.
Like many of these moments (and I hate to sound too Hollywood in all this) it is a meeting of minds at the top of their game. Yes, Hefti was an outstanding writer and arranger, creating some beautiful numbers; but Basie had the innate talent and had surrounded himself with a tight orchestra who were able to interpret the material and make it their own. Hefti’s genius was to play to the strengths of Basie’s orchestra, ensuring that each musician was able to shine. As fellow musician Miles Davis, who features later in this list of albums, pointed out: “If it weren’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does. But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.” You can have all the right notes in all the right places but, if you don’t have somebody with the magic touch to perform it, it can still sound bland. But give a talented group of musicians a masterpiece of writing, and the result can be electrifying. Such is the case with The Atomic Mr Basie.
Things kick off at speed with the explosive trumpets on The Kid from Red Bank. Mixed in with some fine piano work, this is a stunning introduction to the music of Count Basie. Much like Ellington’s work, it screams smoky jazz clubs in New York and a time long since lost. Yet, for the exuberance in the playing, there is a tightness to it as well; from the start these are musicians confident not just in their own ability, but who completely trust one another too. There is no sense of one trying to outdo another; this is about letting each one have their moment in the spotlight. Duet brings a smoothness to proceedings, the piano and brass counterpointing the double bass; here is a track to lounge to.
Each number on this album is a masterpiece in itself, from the slow easiness of After Supper to the joyfulness in Basie favourite Flight of the Foo Birds. The band doesn’t hit a wrong note and it becomes quickly evident that they are enjoying the thrill of playing tunes that have been expertly composed and arranged as much as the listener is in hearing it. Stand out numbers like the call and response playing of Splanky and gentle beauty and brilliance of closing number Lil’ Darlin’ stand side-by-side, proving that when you combine the right elements, you are guaranteed something rather special.
If you’ve got a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk