Saturday, February 21, 2009

Music DVD Review: Count Basie & His Orchestra (Featuring Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis) -- Live in Berlin & Stockholm 1968

Now Available on DVD

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Legend has it that William Basie earned the handle of "Count" from an impressed radio announcer or emcee after realizing "there was already a King (of swing, Benny Goodman), a Duke (Ellington) and an Earl (Hines)."

And while the title of Count mostly brings up images of the number happy Sesame Street character who lived and breathed arithmetic to those in my generation-- Mr. Basie applied the same type of left brain logic with a splendid amount of right brain creativity-- in developing one of the most extraordinary American bands of the twentieth century.

Still going strong today after more than twenty years following Basie's death and led by bass trombonist Bill Hughes who appears in both concert venues featured on the DVD-- musician Count Basie and his incredible orchestra provided that rare "happy ending" case in the history of jazz as it managed to move with the times by embracing and conquering every form from Dixie to Swing to Big Band.

Moreover, Basie helped launch the careers of so many masters-- surrounding himself only with the best but always selflessly promoting the many talented soloists and musical arrangers throughout his extraordinary career (including Lester Young, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Quincy Jones, Neal Hefti, Sam Nestico, Richard Boone, Bobby Plater, Eric Dixon, Marshall Royal, Freddie Green, Marlena Shaw, and many, many more.

While 1968 found America in a state of political and social turmoil during the Vietnam War era, leaders and public figures assassinated, the Black Panther party gaining momentum, and women starting to fight for their own sexual revolution-- it's hard to imagine Basie's jazz music as a companion to the year that seems to come complete with its own trippy rock soundtrack. Yet, Basie still remained popular-- essentially leading his orchestra for roughly fifty years during his lifetime.

With a sound that "was characterized by a light swinging rhythm section that he led from the piano" and focused on "generous soloing" and "lively ensemble work," so that it was a complete team effort-- while he'll always be known as the man with the delicate touch on the keyboard, perhaps the best assessment of his magic was in the argument one writer proclaimed that "his instrument was his band."

And in 1968, he was still going strong despite the turmoil back home as the child who grew up dreaming "of a traveling life, inspired by the carnivals which came to town," and his frequent escape to the silent movies (where one day--playing by ear-- he filled in for the absent pianist and discovered the art of improvisation), fulfilled his desire for adventure by taking Europe by storm. And directly in the eye of the Basie tornado of swing in Europe, in this newly released Impro-Jazz all region compatible roughly seventy minute DVD, viewers can sit spellbound as it charts vintage performances he gave in Berlin, Germany and Stockholm, Sweden.

A terrific find for jazz lovers-- surprisingly, although the footage seems a bit grainy with a distant hiss sound when the DVD begins, soon Basie launches us fully into the sounds of his enormous orchestra in two concerts that could also serve as a wonderful piece of background music for an intimate dinner party or '60s themed evening in.

The concert footage features rows and rows of musicians and in the selection of tracks managing to move forwards and backwards in time to play his first big hit "One O'Clock Jump," (in the closing of the Berlin concert) along with some tracks that feel far more contemporary such as Eric Dixon's incredible "Blues For Ilean" which sounds as though it wouldn't have been out of place in a Henry Mancini score or as a new theme song for TV's Get Smart.

"California Soul" singer Marlena Shaw--who was the first female artist ever signed to the famous Blue Note Jazz label-- appears for a few great renditions on the DVD. In her four year career singing with Count Basie's orchestra following her word-of-mouth breakthrough "wowing audiences in the Catskills, Playboy clubs and various other East Coast venues," and the phenomenally successful recording of her song "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" which impressed the Count-- we get a great sense of her dynamic range on this riveting DVD.

For, just like Basie who made the orchestra his instrument, Shaw manages to move around the register in varying deliveries to become that rare singer who both seems like both a soloist and an integral one-of-a-kind instrument in her own right. While it's often easy for a singer to either overpower a band or find their own voice overpowered by a few instruments, let alone the massively intricate small town sized one run by Basie-- her standout track on this DVD is when she appears to perform"Bill Bailey" before she tops herself again in the achy and soulful "Muddy Water Blues."

Featuring some incredible saxophone solos and outstanding numbers like "Cherokee," the standard jazz classic "A Night in Tunisia," the beautifully wistful sounds of "Lonely Street" that make it seem as though it were ideal for a lovelorn Woody Allen movie, soon the thirteen track performance in Berlin moves us right into Stockholm. Once in Sweden and despite some mic difficulties at the start--the camera work appears to be much more creative, really focusing on the specific performers themselves.

Although a majority of the tracks in the very brief Stockholm section are repeats (although I'm sure nobody would complain at the chance of hearing an even better rendition of "All Of Me," and the awesome "Blues For Ilean" and "Cherokee" again), the first track is one of the best on the DVD as we hear Neal Hefti's "Splanky" which is so inviting, we even see members of the band unable to stop tapping their feet or bobbing their head as though they were audience members listening for the first time.

A solid, unselfish and highly entertaining group that seems to be the epitome of teamwork but still managing to give every incredible member a chance to shine in the spotlight-- while Basie fans may just be interested in picking it up simply for the Count himself-- seeing the entire orchestra in action makes you realize that in music, what you hear is only half the story.

Likewise, being given a chance to travel back in time to witness these vital performances makes one appreciate the songs and the man you thought you knew on a whole other level-- since there would be no orchestra without Count Basie and without the orchestra there would be no Count Basie.

DVD Track List

Berlin, Germany, November 9, 1968

1) All Of Me
2) Hittin' Twelve
3) Blues For Ilean
4) Bill Bailey
5) On A Clear Day
6) Cherokee
7) Good Time Blues
8) A Night In Tunisia
9) Muddy Water Blues
10) Whirly-Bird
11) Lonely Street
12) The Magic Flea
13) One O'Clock Jump

Stockholm, Sweden, November 12, 1968

14) Splanky
15) All Of Me
16) Hittin' Twelve
17) Blues For Ilean
18) Cherokee
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