TT 229: Basie & Zoot; Duke's Big 4 on video
excursions into the 70's Pablo catalog
One of the less sexy corners of the discography are the hundreds of LPs from the ‘70s and ‘80s produced by Norman Granz for his Pablo label. Nothing is wrong with most the music, exactly, but there’s something a shade undercooked and staid about many of the releases. Most of the players — many among the greatest of all time — are rendering somewhat predictable repertoire in somewhat predictable ways. The sonics are rarely that charismatic, either.
Not that there aren’t wonderful things. Shuja Haider encouraged me to listen to the 1975 set of Count Basie and Zoot Sims in a quartet with John Heard and Louis Bellson, Basie & Zoot. My impression is that Granz put out the session in the order that the music was recorded, for the date warms up as it goes along. A highlight is “Honeysuckle Rose.” Basie tips along for a several casual choruses before Zoot enters in a marvelously high gear. Indeed, Zoot is tooting so hard he is swinging the rhythm section rather than the other way around.
The session closes with “I Surrender Dear” with Basie on organ. Really pretty awesome. The Count goofs off, switching up the organ stops like he is accompanying a silent movie. Since his piano style was mostly percussive, with blocky short stabs, it is fascinating to hear the man play sustained pads of full flawless harmony.
At one point the whole session of Duke’s Big 4 was on YouTube, including a fair amount of rehearsal and discussion. I didn’t save it as a download, partially because it was a little hard for me to watch: my firm impression was that neither Joe Pass nor Ray Brown were being deferential enough to Ellington. (Louis Bellson was fine.)
Ellington repeatedly tosses out unusual ideas that are more or less ignored by the guitarist and bassist. A taste of that can be seen in a clip that is still up, rehearsal and a take of “The Blues.” (UPDATE: More on the history of this tune at bottom of the post.)
Ray Brown is teaching the riff to Pass, and apparently to Ellington as well (even though it is Ellington’s riff from many years earlier). After a minute and half of fooling around, Duke starts finding something primeval and churchy for a potential reharmonization. He also is working on an idiosyncratic kind of Bobby Timmons falling scale/riff/shout to replace the stereotypical blues descent Brown is playing on the bass. Finally, Duke wants to find exactly the right juicy close-position harmony for each note in the middle of the phrase.
Pass and Brown steamroller over all of that in favor of stuff they already understand. Right before recording the work in progress, Ellington turns and tries to gain some room to maneuver. “This could take a little while.”
The others rush to cut him off. “No, it ain’t!” “It’s just a blues!”
They then roll tape, and that take is what is on the record.
The slight tune starts on a major seventh (E natural over F7) which is pretty cool and pretty weird. (Especially the way Ellington lays into that major seventh. He sounds like a whole band with just one note.) But, sadly, I see Brown and Pass suck the mystery out of that major seventh in real time. The guitarist and the bassist are playing a conventional professional blues, not an idiosyncratic Ellington blues. By the end of the take, the major seventh is starting to sound wrong, rather than the whole reason to play the melody to begin with.
Duke’s Big 4 is okay overall, and it’s objectively great to have one last small group album with a few shocking piano chords the year before Ellington died. But the rehearsal videos show the album could have been a lot better if Pass and Brown had just shut up and listened to the piano player.
Brown is one thing: he’s not my favorite for this context but he’s certainly an awesome musician and Ellington could be a master of ignoring bassists. Pass is another kettle of fish. Guitar has a lot of power in this situation. I don’t think Joe Pass picks up on a single Ellington offering. Instead he just noodles away while looking into the distance. Maybe he’s bored to be playing with Duke? Cynical? It’s very hard for me not to judge Joe Pass here; just at this moment I’m prepared to never listen to Joe Pass again. Ever.
A good producer keeps the session going in the right direction. Duke was the greatest musician present, and he was almost at the end of the road. Frankly, it was Granz’s fucking job to step in and say, “let’s take a break,” and then talk to Pass and Brown privately about following Duke’s lead. Instead, they ended up with the kind of track that exists in similar form on almost every Pablo release.
I can just see boring old Norman Granz settling back in his chair. He’s paying the freight, the musicians are great, so what’s the problem? How many times did he say, “Nice work today, gentlemen. We are still one tune short, so pick a key to play a medium blues in. Do you want to dedicate it to a friend or a musician from the past?”
(On Basie and Zoot the dedication is “Blues for Nat Cole,” which, to be fair, is fabulous — although probably mis-titled, for it is uptempo rhythm changes. Next in sequence is “Captain Bligh” which is a medium slow blues with Basie tinkling the ivories like Nat Cole. Probably the titles for “Captain Bligh” and “Blues for Nat Cole” should be switched around.)
It’s easy to criticize. We are certainly better off to have all those Granz sessions. In a future edition of TT I’ll highlight some beautiful Pablo albums.
During the recording of Big 4 there’s a man in a corner, smoking and looking nervous. That’s Stanley Dance! During the pandemic I wrote up a few Stanley Dance-related items. God bless Stanley Dance.
UPDATE on “The Blues.” At first I thought the riff might be by Ray Brown, for he is leading the ensemble in rehearsal. However, both Carl Woideck and René Michaelsen helped me out by sourcing "The Blues" to Ellington records from the 1940s. It's briefly part of "The Blues" section in Black, Brown, and Beige, and much more obviously "Carnegie Blues."
Both ‘40s versions are in D-flat, and the rhythmic phrasing is notably different than what ends up on Big 4. In my view, Ray Brown’s version removes a lot of the best things about “Carnegie Blues.” I have no idea why Brown is in charge of teaching the music to Pass and Ellington.
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