CULT CLASSIC: COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA-AFRIQUE.
Cult Classic: Count Basie and His Orchestra-Afrique.
By 1970, sixty-six year old Count Basie was one of the most successful jazz musicians. He had achieved just about everything and had won seventeen Grammy Awards with his Orchestra. Count Basie had come a long way since he dropped out of school to play the piano at a silent movie theatre.
Soon, he was playing regularly in pickup bands or groups travelling through New Jersey. If they were looking for a piano player, Count Basie was their man. He had to hustle for gigs as competition was fierce, and only the best got hired. However, Count Basie was working towards the best.
Aged twenty, Count Basie left his New Jersey home and headed to Harlem. Soon, he was touring throughout America. Five years later, in 1929, Count Basie headed to Kansas City to join Bennie Moten’s band. He was a member of Bennie’s band until he died in 1935. For Count Basie, playing with Bennie taught him how to lead a band and the next year he decided to form his own orchestra.
Count Basie and His Orchestra made their debut in Chicago in 1936. That was also when they made their recording debut. For the next six decades, Count Basie and His Orchestra were one of jazz’s most innovative bands.
Born in the swing era, they recorded for Brunswick between 1937 and 1939. After that, Columbia and RCA were home for Count Basie and His Orchestra between 1939 and 1950. During that period, Count Basie and His Orchestra survived the decline in popularity of the big band. By reinventing his Orchestra, they thrived. They went on to collaborate with everyone from Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole to Joe Williams. Then in 1969, with jazz changing, Count Basie and His Orchestra reinvented themselves once again. Count Basie and His Orchestra signed to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions and released their classic album Afrique.
For Bob Thiele, signing Count Basie to his newly formed label, was a huge thrill as he had always been a fan of big bands. There was none better than Count Basie and His Orchestra. What made them stand out was their legendary rhythm section. They provided the backdrop for the horn section. The rhythm section is described as solid but flexible, while the horns played with an unbridled freedom. Remarkably, Count Basie rebuilt the Orchestra several times and it went on to win seventeen Grammy Awards and are perceived as one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz. It was no surprise that Bob Thiele regarded signing Count Basie and His Orchestrawas one of the highlights of his career.
Having signed Count Basie and His Orchestra, Bob Thiele was determined that he was going to make Count Basie relevant again. He hadn’t been relevant for the last few years. Relevant didn’t mean covering Beatles tracks or James Bond themes. That wasn’t relevant to a new generation of music lovers, never mind jazz lovers looking for groundbreaking music. Beatles covers and James Bond themes were passé, and wasn’t even yesterday’s sound, It more like last year’s sound and what Bob Thiele wanted was for his hero to record tomorrow’s music today.
To do this, Bob Thiele brought Oliver Nelson onboard. He would arrange and conduct what became Afrique. Playing on Afrique would be a studio version of Count Basie and His Orchestra. They recorded eight tracks, including Step Right Up, Hobo Flats, Afrique, Kilimanjaro and African Sunrise. Other tracks included Gabor Szabo, Albert Ayler’s Love Flower and Pharaoh Saunders’ Japan. These eight tracks were recorded on 22nd and 23rd December 1969.
When recording of Afrique began, the all important rhythm section of Count Basie and His Orchestra included electric bassist John B. Williams, drummer Harold Jones and guitarist Freddy Green. While the rhythm section played an important part in Count Basie and His Orchestra’s sound, so did the horn section. They were joined by Richard Pablo Landrum who played congas and Sonny Morgan bongos. Hubert Laws played flute, Buddy Lucas harmonica and Count Basie piano. Once the eight tracks were recorded, Afrique was released in 1970. With Bob Thiele having given Count Basie and His Orchestra a moderne makeover on Afrique, how would this be received?
On the release of Afrique, it was critically acclaimed. Critics loved the album. They said Count Basie was back and relevant. Music lovers reappraised Count Basie and His Orchestra. They’d lost their way previously, covering Beatles songs and James Bond themes. For a jazz great, this wasn’t how he’d want to be remembered. However, signing to Flying Dutchman transformed Count Basie’s fortunes.
Bob Thiele who produced Afrique, got Count Basie’s career back on track. Having chosen eight recent tracks and paired Count Basie and His Orchestra with arranger, conductor and songwriter critics hailed Afrique as a groundbreaking, classic album. So much so, that it’s one of Count Basie and His Orchestra best post big band albums. It’s also why Afrique was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Step Right Up which opens Afrique, is one of five Oliver Nelson penned tracks. Count Basie draws inspiration from the past, laying down some old time piano before his Orchestra kick loose. Again, it’s very much a track with its roots in past. Propelled along by the bass, drums are played with brushes before Howard Jones mixes flamboyance and power. Then the horns are unleashed. They growl and bray, before Count Basie plays a jaunty solo. Soon, high kicking horns take centre-stage as the Orchestra hit their stride. They do what they’d been doing for thirty-four years by creating some of captivating music.
Hobo Flats first made an appearance on Jimmy Smith’s 1963 album. Here, it takes on a moody, bluesy sound. That’s thanks to the combination of bluesy harmonica and grizzled horns. They meander across the arrangement combining blues and free jazz. Meanwhile, minimalist describes Count Basie’s contribution. When he lays down a solo, it’s slinky and jazz-tinged. Mostly, he’s content to let his band shine. This includes fautist Hubert Laws shines. Mostly, though, it’s Buddy Lucas on harmonica and the horn section that take centre-stage during what’s the definitive version of Hobo Flats.
Bongos, congas and Hubert Laws’ flute combine as this Gypsy Queen reveals her secrets. As the cascading, punchy flute and probing bass intermingle, Count Basie lays down some choppy piano lines. His playing is inventive and imaginative. He may have been out of his comfort zone, but he rose to the challenge. With the bass, flute and piano, the arrangement becomes almost dissonant, then dark and dramatic. He stabs at his piano providing a contrast to the flute. Then the horns stride centre-stage. They’re bold, punchy and dramatic, unfolding in waves. They pickup the baton, totally transforming this track. It becomes melodic and the earlier darkness is gone. From the darkness comes light and joy as this Gypsy Queen reveals her secrets.
Count Basie’s tender piano playing opens Love Flower, before the sultriest of saxophone takes centre-stage. Meanwhile, the arrangement shuffles along. Bob Thiele pans the piano left, while stabs of horns assail you. They surround you, as if encouraging you to focus on this virtuoso performance from the saxophone. Right up until the track’s dramatic crescendo, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ saxophone oozes emotion, beauty and later drama.
Afrique sees Count Basie and Hubert Law play the role of musical gunslingers. They go toe-to-toe during this track. Hubert’s flute and Count Basie’s piano are accompanied by a myriad of percussion, grizzled horns and urgent rhythm section. Horns and woodwind cascade, sweeping and swirling, before Hubert attempts to strike a knockout blow. He delivers a solo that’s played with power, control, speed and fluidity. Truly, it’s stunning. Horns encourage him every step of the way. They pick up the baton and help him vanquish his challenger, as he plays with style, flamboyance and passion.
The addition of Kilimanjaro is almost apt. Having gone from covering the Beatles and James Bond themes, signing to Flying Dutchman Count Basie was akin to climbing a mountain. After all, this was the home of innovators, mavericks and free spirits. Count Basie was perceived by some as the establishment. However, he surprised many people with Afrique, climbing his own mountain. With a probing bass, hissing hi-hats and percussion combining, laid-back, languid horns glide in. They grow in power, blazing urgently. They add a real sixties sound to arrangement. Playing an important role is the bass. It provides the heartbeat, while the flute flutters, floating above Kilimanjaro’s now wistful arrangement. With the bass for company, Hubert’s flute and stabs of Count Basie’s piano combine. Then from the shadows, Count Basie takes centre-stage. His playing is understated, thoughtful and melancholy. Then just as you’re enjoying a virtuoso performance, the horns blaze in, kicking loose and driving this seven-minute epic to its dramatic, wistful climax.
African Sunrise sees waves of growling and sultry horns sprayed across the arrangement. Meanwhile, the rhythm section and percussion provide the heartbeat. They then announce the arrival of Count Basie’s piano solo. It’s slow, melancholy and tender. This is easily one of his best. Complimenting his playing are the electric bass and drums that accompany him. Later, vintage horns sweep in. The modernity of earlier is gone, where free jazz combined with Count Basie’s more traditional sound. Despite the more traditional sound, this beautiful African Sunrise features a masterclass from Count Basie and His Orchestra.
Closing Afrique is a cover of Pharaoh Saunders’ Japan. Flourishes of piano are joined by dark horns and persistent percussion. Quickly, the arrangement becomes grandiose and almost ceremonial. That’s thanks to the horns, why become one. Then it’s all change, and briefly, a breezy track unfolds. Having said that, the earlier Oriental sound returns. Later, stabs of grizzled horns inject a sense of urgency, whilst a flute cascades. Count Basie stabs at his piano, repeating the same notes. it’s as if having not got the answer he wants, he repeats the same question ad infinitum. It’s as if he’s searching for an answer and is frustrated. This gives the track a left-field, avant-garde sound. After that, Count Basie allows his Orchestra to take centre-stage, enjoying playing the part of accompanist on this reinvention of Japan.
Bob Thiele was responsible not just for the reinvention of Count Basie, but his music becoming relevant again. Before Afrique, Count Basie and His Orchestra were reduced to playing covers of Beatles songs and James Bond themes. It had come to that. They weren’t going to win any Grammy’s with covers of Yellow Submarine and Goldfinger. One of jazz’s founding fathers career was at a crossroads and for the second half of the sixties Count Basie was largely irrelevant to modern music. Then Bob Thiele entered the equation.
Luckily, Bob was a huge admirer of Count Basie and His Orchestra, and grew up listening to the big bands. Now times had changed and his idol was neither popular nor relevant. Luckily, having just founded Flying Dutchman Productions, Bob was in a position to do something to help Count Basie and His Orchestra. This meant making Count Basie and His Orchestra relevant again. To do this, Bob had to reinvent Count Basie and His Orchestra. This didn’t mean covering Beatles tracks or James Bond themes. That wasn’t relevant to a new generation of music lovers, never mind jazz lovers looking for groundbreaking music. Beatles covers and James Bond themes were passé. What Bob Thiele wanted was for his hero to record tomorrow’s music today.
He chose some of the most groundbreaking music of the past few years. This included tracks written by Gabor Szabo, Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Saunders’ Japan. These three artists were among the leading free jazz players. Then Bob chose five tracks written by Oliver Nelson, who would arrange and conduct Count Basie and His Orchestra. Bob sent Count Basie and His Orchestra into the studio and over two days, they were reborn.
The result was Afrique, a groundbreaking and urgent album where Count Basie and His Orchestra were reborn. It was akin to a musical resurrection as Count Basie and His Orchestra played with freedom and fluidity, passion and power, drive and determination. They were determined to show they were still relevant. They were. That’s despite moving in a new direction. Avant-garde, Afro-beat, blues, experimental, free jazz, soul and Count Basie and His Orchestra’s more traditional brand of jazz were combined. The result was Afrrique, a departure from what fans of Count Basie and His Orchestra had grown used to which was nominated for a Grammy Award. .
No wonder as the music on Afrique was exciting, ambitious, bold, innovative, soulful and dramatic, Count Basie and His Orchestra were back. The eight song journey that was Afrique rejuvenated not just Count Basie and His Orchestra, but his fans. Having heard Count Basie and His Orchestra on Afrique, they realised that one of jazz’s pioneers and jazz’s founding father’s was still relevant and able to create groundbreaking music.
COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA-AFRIQUE.