Even while the Count Basie Orchestra was in the studio finishing work on its Tony Bennett album, A Swinging Christmas, the ensemble’s new album was already taking shape: a salute to such jazz titans as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane, in addition to such living legends as Bennett, Quincy Jones, Hank Jones, Frank Wess, Jon Hendricks, Curtis Fuller, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and others. Mack Avenue Records presents Swinging, Singing, Playing: The Count Basie Orchestra Salutes the Jazz Masters featuring top-drawer performances by the big band and its all-star guest list that includes Jones, Wess, Hendricks, Fuller, Geri Allen, Nnenna Freelon, Janis Siegel, Butch Miles, Rufus Reid and, in a nod to the younger generation that embraces Basie music, sparkplug singer/pianist Jamie Cullum.
Produced by Mack Avenue’s executive vice president of A&R Al Pryor and CBO producer / conductor of special projects Dennis Wilson, Swinging, Singing, Playing achieves just what the CD title boasts: a swinging good time of extraordinary blues-fueled performances that hail various jazz legends. “There was so much flat-out love when we recorded the album,” says Wilson, who served with the Basie band from 1977 to 1987, including seven years with the Count at the helm. “When we finished laying down each track there was so much huggin’ and kissin.’ It was like when Ella Fitzgerald used to tour with us. At the end, she gave us all presents. That’s what it felt like–good feelings all around.”
An associate professor at the University of Michigan and the executive director of the school’s jazz festival, Wilson set his goal to bring on board a variety of artists who had some connection to the Basie legacy and to pay tribute to jazz masters, past and present. He arranged tunes from the orchestra’s library as well as brought to the session four originals, including the fleeting uptempo number, “Giant Blues Flag Waver,” with Allen blazing on the piano and CBO members tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence and drummer Marion Felder soloing. In the liner notes Wilson writes, “This is one of two songs that have a harmonic quote from the music of John Coltrane. This song is [also] a salute to piano jazz masters Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.”
Wilson also contributes “Naiomi’s Blues,” a bluesy tune written for his daughter and dedicated to Basie, and the balladic “Dark Morning,” written on the morning that Basie died in 1984 and played as a tribute to Hubbard. The final Wilson offering is the endsong of the show, “Blues on Mack Avenue.” It features the composer on pixie-muted trombone, Fuller on trombone, Hendricks on vocals and Cullum on piano. Wilson notes that the tune is the final movement of the three-movement work he wrote, Count Basie Midwest Suite, and that Fuller was the trombonist he replaced when he joined the Basie band.
As for the appearance of Cullum on Swinging, Singing, Playing, Wilson says that the youngster had requested CBO to accompany him on one of his projects and agreed to reciprocate on this album. In addition to playing the piano on ”Blues on Mack Avenue,” he sings a knock-down version of ”Blame It On My Youth” (in tribute to Art Farmer and Bennett). Wilson recalls, “When I asked Jamie to join us, he went nuts. He kept asking me, ‘Are you really sure?’ And then he went nuts again when he heard he was playing the piano alongside Jon and Curtis.”
Wess is featured on flute on Quincy Jones’ “Jessica’s Day,” which the composer arranged for Basie for his 79th birthday in 1983. It marks the first time the CBO has ever played the tune. Wilson explains: “Quincy sent the chart to the Basie office which sent it to me. I told Basie I’d keep it until the next rehearsal. However, we never had another rehearsal, so I’ve had it all this time.”
Vocalist Freelon performs two songs. She opens the CD by singing and scatting in a power big band launch through “Too Close For Comfort” (with an acoustic guitar interlude in remembrance of Freddie Green) and the off-and-running take on “Yesterdays” along with drummer Butch Miles being showcased (another tribute to Bennett).
Siegel sings and scats the 12/8 feel “Like Young” (honoring Ella) and joins Hank Jones on “Close Your Eyes,” of which Wilson cites: “This chart is a feature for both voice and piano. The dynamic range in this chart is maximized. After the piano solo, [Janis] trades fours with [Hank] as the band accompanies. The chart has a ‘cute’ personality ending.” She and Jones are also featured on another Swinging, Singing, Playing unique piece of music: “I Have Waited So Long,” composed by Vaughan with lyrics by Holli Ross. “This is the world premiere recording of the song,” says Wilson who explains its origins: In the early ‘80s, Vaughan started dating CBO trumpet player Waymon Reed and would always travel with the band whenever she was not on her own concert tour. During the orchestra’s annual weeklong stint at Disneyland, she invited all the members to her house for a home-cooked meal. “At one point, Sarah sat at the piano and played an original song,” recalls Wilson. “We all thought it was beautiful…so I asked her to play it again and I wrote it down on paper.” Wilson later arranged it for her to sing at a concert, but it had no lyrics until years later.
While that tune’s inclusion on Swinging, Singing, Playing is particularly special to Wilson (“It made me work hard to be respectful to Sarah”), the collection taken as a whole has pleased him to no end. He’s fully enthusiastic about the band’s performance. “There was love in the room,” Wilson adds, “not only for the music itself, but also for the jazz masters we honored.”