I Found A New Baby is a monthly column that seeks to shed light on swing music from the past and present, looking at albums from musicians who were once considered the biggest names around, and those who keep the style alive in the present day.
Considering Count Basie was performing live music from about the age of 16 up until a few years before his death in 1984, it’s safe to say that there are countless live recordings of his to pick from. Perhaps even harder than just getting through all the live documents of Basie and his various outfits is choosing a favourite. Basie, being the immensely talented pianist, arranger, and composer he was, was hard to find on anything less than great form. His music swings through and through, and when he’s at the centre of any recordings, it’s hard to fault the music.
One album there is a sort of consensus about though is Basie’s Breakfast Dance And Barbecue. This 1959 release was a brief live take in its original form (it has since been re-released with an almost overwhelming 18 tracks to boot), only eight tracks that caught Basie and his band at one of their loosest moments. The eight tracks were the first of three sets recorded at 2 a.m. at the Americana Hotel in Miami, and there’s little desire for Basie or his band to stay fully on point here. Only when vocalist Joe Williams joins the group on stage do things rally towards a succinct length.
But that’s mostly fine, because, as said, Basie at the helm is a strong force that’s entertaining in near enough any form or any time of the morning. Opening track “In A Mellow Tone” is a near seven minute long take on the Duke Ellington classic and there’s no hurry whatsoever to get to the end. Basie tinkles away at the start like he’s contemplating other thoughts and his piano playing is a secondary thought. Eddy Jones and Sonny Payne on bass and drums respectively, however, keep things fully directed, making for a deliciously solid rhythm section. Payne in particular is careful with each hit of the drum that when he fills in a gap with a brilliant couple of bass drum hits towards the end, he sounds like the secret weapon that’s been lurking in front of the listener all along. Even better are Payne’s skills demonstrated on “Counter Clock” where his rapid bass drum hits and manic drum fills threaten to overrule the entire brass section at the end.
The looseness of the proceedings here can work either way, depending on how attached you are to the traditional arrangements of the tracks here. “Who Me” is positively in a hurry compared to the version Basie recorded on Chairman of the Board while “Moten Swing” keeps its rollicking crescendos but dials down to a languid whisper during its quietest moments. “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” might as well be a different track for the most part, and were it not for the uplifting swing in the song’s chorus, then you could be convinced Joe Williams is singing an entirely different song instead of the track Ray Charles made famous.
Elsewhere Basie and his group are a complex unit figuring their way easily through melodies that seems almost too intricate for their own good, namely the appropriately clockwork-like piano at the opening of “Counter Clock”. “Let’s Have A Taste” finds the band in a fine stride, each player getting some time on their own and the track never letting up while “One O’Clock Jump” could perhaps only be critiqued for not being longer, the question of why the Basie didn’t let the song’s irresistible cyclical build up going on for another few rounds.
Which leads me back to the consensus there is had about the album: most agree that this isn’t the best Basie live document. I’d agree, but I would point out that it’s one of the more curious ones. The arrangements might not be tight, but letting some air and space into the tracks helps greatly, especially on “In A Mellow Tone” and “Moten Swing”. There’s chatter from the crowd heard when the band are laying low, but it adds a human element, reminding you that there’s an audience present (which it’s easy to imagine Basie leaving the stage to go mingle with every so often). Breakfast Dance And Barbecue isn’t perfect, but it’s still worth stopping in on, at the very least to hear Basie during one his more carefree and charmingly relaxed moments.
If there’s a name that sells well on the swing dance circuit, then it’s Gordon Webster. A night of music from him and his band is enough to convince anyone on the fence about travelling to far off lands to go and have a blast. Webster is a studied musician, graduating with a Masters in Jazz Studies in 2006 from the Manhattan School of Music. Since then he’s found his feet both as a jazz pianist, but also as a dancer. Webster caught the lindy hop bug and found himself travelling to events to dance and eventually perform as well. Now he’s the main attraction, and since his graduation he’s released a number of albums capturing his enviable and wonderful ability at the keys.
Live At Rochester isn’t his first or even his most recent live album, but it has more than enough material to make it a contender for being the best. Indeed, from the moment opening track “Night Train” bursts into the picture the show rarely lets up. Webster ripples the keys against a buoyant cymbal ride before the song’s main riff builds the momentum and excitement. By the other end of the track the trumpet raises the joy of the piece, recalling the celebratory trumpet found on Louis Prima’s hit “Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody”. It’s a rollicking beginning to the set but far from the most energetic thing here.
If there’s one thing Webster and his band do well on Live In Rochester then it’s building to an almost manic flurry of horns and woodwind that intensifies the energy. “Paramour”, “Comes Love”, and “Five Foot Two” are just a few of the examples here, the last of which even brings it all back for a second short run after a lively drum break. Jeremy Noller’s drums are a key feature during these moments of heightened excitement: his snares and toms become instruments capable of spreading fire almost instantly, if not just raising the temperature without a moments’ notice once he starts adding in a few extra hits on the 2 and the 4. Elsewhere on the famous Russian song “Ochi Coymiye” (known also as “Dark Eyes”) Dan Levinson’s clarinet sets the tone as the band travels through Yiddish-inflected music that bursts open into what sounds like a full blown bah mitzvah directed by Tim Burton.
While this album might have Webster’s name on the front, he’s a modest performer in many regards, always allowing centre stage to be taken by other musicians; he might have plenty of Fats Waller in his fingers, but it only goes so far as his dexterity. Webster brings in a selection of fine vocalists here, namely Naomi Uyama (of Naomi and Her Handsome Devils) and Aurora Nealand (who also contributes plenty of alto and soprano saxophone playing across the record). Nealand fits in divinely to a track like “Darkness on the Delta”, which feels very much like a languid, starry-eyed Dixieland track that would appear on her own releases. Uyama is in fine form too, and on “Sweet Sue” she nestles in perfectly to the guitar and bowed bass lead of the track with a voice that sounds fresh and fittingly sweet for the track. Elsewhere on peppier numbers like “Diga Digo Doo”, “Paramour”, and “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me” she’s never afraid to play about with the melody, even in the tiniest way. On “Diga Diga Doo” for example, she carries the note of the title words across the bar where other arrangements might fill it in with call and response vocals.
And pleasingly Webster doesn’t even always lead the way with tracks, letting the likes of guitarist Cassidy Holden set the tempo and lead the trail. Webster is always there though, and his playing is always a pleasure to listen for particularly. But because each player is mixed on what sounds like an equal level, the whole album feels communal as opposed to the showcase of one particular artist while other play alongside. It makes Live In Rochester’s heart so big and likeable, and when they all start firing on all fronts it’s impossible not to get caught up in the atmosphere. It should be added that included in the album’s tracklisting is a version of “I Like Pie” sung by a once esteemed swing dance teacher. After allegations of grooming and rape came to light against said teacher (whose face sadly adorns the right centre of the cover art), the track has pretty much been deleted form most swing DJs libraries. It is no real loss in the grand scheme of things (The Four Clef’s version of the song still remains the best version in this writer’s humble opinion), or even in respect of the album. There are more than enough tracks here that supersede “I Like Pie”‘s energy; “Comes Love”, for instance (which features trumpeter Jesse Selengut’s deliciously textured vocals), offers a dynamism rarely found in live takes or indeed any other version of the song. It in itself is fine evidence as to why Webster’s name is such a selling point.