At first it seems strange, but it makes perfect sense. Basie rarely led a small group, but when he did (early ‘Fifties; record dates in the ‘Sevenites) a new facet was seen. The horns could stretch, and the Count would display his stride – if but for a moment. The same feeling is here: an octet with tight ensembles and
a loose feel. Swing veterans abound: Bob Haggart, charts by Neal Hefti and Buck Clayton, plus Billy Mitchell, from the ‘Sixties “atomic” band. That word is appropriate – this is a blast.
It starts as expected: the hi-hat, the ching-ching guitar, the easy stride from the leader. Tight horns blare soft, and now they shout: it’s only four, but they pack a punch. Randy Sandke starts low, and the tension builds: a high bleat, and someone says “Yeah!” Dan Barrett has a nice round tone, grinding low as the rasp builds. And now the screamer: Mitchell digs deep, high excitement and low gravel. He goes for the Lockjaw sound; he succeeds. A massed riff, hinting “One O’Clock Jump”; a thunderstorm from Joe Anscione. It’s a blues, but how could anyone be sad? Not the crowd, that’s for sure.
Next is “Moten Swing”, and an unexpected joy. Basie did it with an octet in 1976: a simple jam with laid-back feel. Clayton’s arrangement: high reeds whisper behind the soloists. Barrett is good; the alto is superb. You think of old dance records: high swing, and tiny solos that get the job done. A pleasant surprise: thank Buck and the band.
“Who, me?” says Mitchell when his name is called. The spotlight is his, and he’s “Blue and Sentimental.” He was Lockjaw before; this time he’s Lester, with wide tone and light grain. The brass swells, and he steps it up a little. The “Moten Swing” riff comes in, and Billy swaggers, his warmth intact. “April in Paris: sparkles, with startling force. And, of course, we get it “one more time!” And “L’il Darlin’” is a hand on your shoulder; the horns are one big flute and the guitar gets a bit of space. The muted Sandke flutters over the growing reeds, and makes it seem effortless. The final note is a goodnight kiss, and the crowd is charmed.
I’ve never heard a bad version of “Big Noise from Winnetka”, and I still haven’t. It starts like always, then Ascione gets creative. He starts on the toms, goes dainty on the cymbals, clicks sticks, and gets the crowd laughing when he hits metal (the cymbal stand?) Haggart says something in German (more laughs) and hits a full strum, something I’ve rarely heard on bass. The whistle returns, and then the applause.
“Broadway” gives us heady riffs and All-American rhythm. Mitchell is throaty on his solo. Barrett is buttery smooth, musing quietly over the tasty comping. Brian Ogilvie has another strong effort, and James Chirillo floats like Burrell (he doesn’t play like Freddie Green, but he solos as often!) Simply put, a jaunt.
Now it’s Ogilvie’s turn to be Lester; Pres played clarinet on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, so Brian does the same. Cool and creamy, it’s almost as good as his alto. Sandke again has the mute, and he bewitches us with old-school magic. Barrett has fun with the plunger (tricky Dan?) and Mitchell goes nice and mellow – two Lesters, no waiting. And we close by saluting “The King”. Pianist Mark Shane at last gets a long solo, and strides a mile. Mitchell growls a little Jaws; Ogilvie comes back with “Lester Leaps In”. Billy shouts; Brian honks. Faster and faster – better and better. The King bows – and the subjects rejoice. A little jam, a little blues – a lot of fun.