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Harry James Plays Neal Hefti

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By my count, there were four big-band albums that paid tribute to the pen of composer-arranger Neal Hefti between 1957 and 1961: Steve Allen Plays Neal Hefti (1957), Basie Plays Hefti (1958), Frank Capp's Percussion in a Tribute to Neal Hefti (1960) and Harry James Plays Hefti (1961). Or put differently, Hefti composed and arranged for four major bandleaders and had enough star power to get equal billing on the cover.  

The Allen album is a smooth swinger; the Basie album is probably the best known and gave us Cute among other New Testament gems; and Capp's album is a punchy offering. But the James album is the tiger. Joining James were top-notch band veterans: Nick Buono, Bud Billings, Vern Guertin (tp), Ray Sims, Dick “Slyde" Hyde (tb), Dick McQuardy (b-tb), Willie Smith, Pat Chartrand (as), Sam Firmature (ts), Modesto Breseno (ts,bar), Ernie Small (bar,fl,tb), Jack Perciful (p), Terry Rosen (g), Russ Phillips (b) and Tony DeNicola (d).

The James band was such a crack outfit that all 10 of the tracks on the album were recorded in one sitting. The Hollywood session started at 8 p.m. and ended at 4 a.m. James didn't want to stop. The band was the Flamingo in Las Vegas at the time and was as fluid as any band could be, which makes sense since they were playing multiple sets each night. [Photo above of Neal Hefti, left, and Harry James in 1961]

According to the liner notes, Hefti went to Vegas, saw the band, met with James sketched out 23 themes, choosing ones that would make for a great mix. As Hefti wrote in the album's liner notes:

“I scored the ones that I thought would make the best balanced album—from slow tempos (Rainbow Kiss) to medium (Hot Pink and The Creeper) to mainstream jazz (Mister Johnson; Harry, Not Jesse; Tweet Tweet and Koo Koo) to gospel (Sunday Morning) to Latin (Fontainebleau and Chiarina). The reaction from Harry and the band was sensational and I breathed a sigh of relief for the first time in a month."

Harry James Plays Neal Hefti has the usual Hefti bounce and hooks, but it also gives you an opportunity to hear an exciting band led by a leader with high standards. By the way, Hefti was no stranger to James. He played trumpet and arranged for James's 1949 band, one of the best orchestras of the period.

Harry James died in 1983 and Neal Hefti died in 2008.

JazzWax tracks: Your best bet for Harry James Plays Neal Hefti is 4 Classic Albums Plus here, which includes the album discussed as well as three other killer albums from the same period.

As for James's knockout 1949 band with arrangements by Neal Hefti, try Harry James: There They Go here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Hot Pink, from Harry James Plays Neal Hefti...

 

And here's The Creeper...

 

And dig the James band of 1949, with Neal Hefti's real gone arrangement of Or Words to That Effect...

 

One more—Hefti's sizzling arrangement of Block Party...

 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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