Blue Eyes and The Count

Someone asked me a few weeks ago why I don’t write about jazz.  It’s a massive part of my world and it’s ever present.  In the morning, it sets the tone for the day, it keeps me going while I work and naturally takes centre stage for dances and jams.

Generally, it’s somewhere in the background of these posts – but it’s about time it received a solo. And it’s probably little surprise that I’ll hone in on swing.

To most, swing is defined as big band music but I think it’s a lot more than that:

  • It’s anything really where the notes are swung (one two, triple step, triple step).
  • Unlike modern jazz it needs a bit more of a classical structure – that structure is so important for those little dance hooks to run in and out of a melody…
  • and following on, it should be danceable. You can’t really call swing ‘swing’, if you can’t dance to it. It’s that foot shuffling goodness which is part of its DNA.

One thing that I love about jazz and swing is its potential for an incredible collaboration. Many of my favourite albums are those where two or more stunning musicians team up to create something super special. Some classic pairings such as ‘Ellington and Coltrane’, ‘Hawkins, Peterson and Webster’, ‘Harris and Milinder’ come to mind.

All of these teams were looking to etch out a sweetness of sound. In their own way, by the time they came together they were essentially traditionalists – trying to make the most of the beautiful structures that were already on offer.

There are so many to choose from, but a team that deserves a little more love is one of my favourite collaborations. A collaboration between a household name and a legend of all things swing: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie.

In 1962, these two icons recorded one of the finest swing albums– ‘Sinatra-Basie: an historical musical first’. Over two days in Hollywood, California – a piece of musical gold was created. With a combination of beautiful licks and exquisite phrasing, the LP’s title is apt.

By the early 60s, swing had well and truly vacated the stage of popular music. I like to think that this album is a celebration of two the settings that brought out the best of the genre: the dance hall and jam session.

Their energetic recording of ‘Nice Work if You Can Get It’ takes one of my favourite Billie Holiday numbers from the smoky corner and places it in the centre of the band-room. It’s contained enough to be true to the original feel while giving the dancer a platform to use space within the song and on the floor.

Once an era has gone – it’s always hard, if not impossible to recreate a sound. What I love about this album is that’s it’s not trying to recreate anything. Through the combination of arguably the best crooner of the 20th century and one of its pioneering pianists – ‘Sinatra-Basie’ is an album that still feels fresh.

All you need to hear is that beautiful interplay between Sinatra, Basie and a lone trumpet in ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and you can tap into music that still feels right at home. Keep listening and within a hop, skip and a jump – the Basie orchestra opens up to allow for Sinatra to bounce over the horn section.

This is an album that takes the best of late 40s RnB, the beauty of the big band and manages to hit a crafted sweet-spot. Songs such as ‘Please be Kind’ or ‘My Kind of Girl’ show that this album is far more than just a grab-bag of standards.

The phrases all feel so tight – just put on ‘My Kind of Girl’ and you can hear that music gives Sinatra’s voice a timeless quality. The opening profile of a walking double bass, scatting and playful drums and piano licks turns Sinatra’s voice into an instrument. It’s a level of layering that doesn’t rely on one star to carry the songs through.

With the exception of the occasional 60s jazz flute, which would have to be up there with the xylophone and eighties synth as instruments for a bad musical hangover – the arrangements have aged beautifully.

Two songs stand out when thinking about the Basie and Sinatra combination. The first, ‘I Won’t Dance’ – takes the best of the collaborator’s skills – old Blue Eye’s ability to lift a minor scale and Basie’s timing and creates a masterpiece.

A false ending, with a delicate touch on the piano half way through the song opens up that space again for the big band and a final dose of playful frustration from Sinatra. It’s exquisite.

The second iconic song is far more well-known and no mention of this jazz dream-team would be complete without flying to the moon.

Two years after their first collaboration, the duo brought the band back together for ‘It Might as Well be Swing’ – a pretty unremarkable album, with the exception of quintessential recording of ‘Fly me to the Moon’.

It’s a recording that brings so much life to what could have been a relatively forgettable ballad or kitsch 60s bossanvoa number. A song that deserves its place in the canon and took the dynamic duo to give it a fitting structure.*

Yet it pales to the excitement captured on their first jam. Of course, it’s beautiful but as the album suggests – it’s not exactly swing. The beat is almost straight, the arrangement is loose and it lacks the licks and crescendos of ‘Sinatra-Basie’ collection.

But with that album under their belt – there was nothing to prove other than their incredible versatility.

‘Sinatra-Basie: an historical musical first’ breaks so much ground without necessarily realising its convention shattering approach. It’s a joy to listen to and captures so much of what makes swing fun: its playful pleasure.

It’s well worth having a listen:

————–

* I still think the best version of Fly Me to the Moon belongs to Oscar Peterson – he manages to spray insecticide on the up-and-down melodic ear worm, a bugbear for rhythm players world-wide.

 

 


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