Count Basie ‘Listen…you shall hear’ (1937)


by Tim Harding

(This review was published in Jazzline magazine, Winter 1989)

It is generally accepted that the primary characteristics that distinguish jazz from other forms of music are syncopation, improvisation and swing. Most of us know what syncopation and improvisation are, but swing is harder  to define. For me, it means an entrancing inner momentum or self-propulsion, like a powerboat lifting itself out of the troughs between the waves and planing along on top.

Swing is Count Basie’s main legacy to jazz. As an arranger, it was largely he who lifted the wallowing Bennie Moten band out of the troughs onto a higher rhythmic plane. As a bandleader, he added key soloists from Walter Page’s Blue Devils, creating a new style of big band. As an instrumentalist, he demonstrated the value of short silences or gaps in improvisation. I have been told that the venerated Australian jazz musician Ade Monsborough once said ‘the notes you leave out are as important as the ones you put in.’ (This point appears to be lost on some modern-style improvisers, with their endless runs of quavers and triplets).

My first live contact (confrontation?) with Basie’s music was in about 1968, when  Jeremy Kellock (later Jerry Noone of ‘Daddy Cool‘ fame) asked me to join a short-lived Basie-type band playing some of his tunes from the late 1930s. Although we found the ensemble riffs relatively easy, we found the rhythmic side very difficult. We just could not get that band to swing anything like Basie’s, and soon gave it away.  Later on,  I was fortunate enough to hear the Basie band in person at the Dallas Brooks Hall in East Melbourne, and I realise how wise we were to give up trying to play like them.

Basie’s characteristics of swing and improvisation are exemplified on this CD album (hep1025), produced by John R.T.Davies for the hep label. The album reissues  tracks from the first recording sessions by the full Basie band in 1937.  The band had been ‘discovered’ in 1936 by wealthy New York jazz writer and entrepreneur John Hammond. Late one night on his car radio in Chicago, Hammond by chance picked up a broadcast by the Basie band from the Reno Club in Kansas City. Hammond was astute enough to realise he had stumbled on a unique new style of jazz, and how right he was!

The new Basie style is evident from the very first track, Honeysuckle Rose, based on the Fletcher Henderson arrangement. (Henderson was kind enough to give the fledgling Basie some of his arrangements to help them through their first gigs). Former Blue Devil vocalist, Jimmie Rushing, features on six of the sixteen tracks, including the melodic title track, Listen…my Children and You Shall Hear and Good Morning Blues, which later became the title of Count Basie’s autobiography.

Another feature of this album is the marvellous ‘duelling tenors’ in the contrasting styles of Herschel Evans and Lester Young, particularly on One O’Clock Jump, Time Out, and John’s Idea (named after John Hammond). Buck Clayton’s trumpet shines on Swinging at the Daisy Chain, (named after a popular Harlem bordello), and Topsy, a wonderfully hot composition and arrangement by Basie trombonist Eddie Durham. Topsy also features a good baritone solo by Jack Washington, as does Exactly Like You.

The stars of the album, however, are the legendary Basie rhythm section of Jo Jones, Walter Page, Freddie Green and the Count himself. These are the guys who mainly generate the swinging momentum or propulsion, to which I referred earlier, and which no band has been able to emulate since.

The album sleeve has an interesting photo of the 1937 band on the front cover, together with comprehensive sleeve notes by Frank Driggs. I would recommend it as an important addition to any broad-minded jazz record collection.

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