A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Was Count Basie – the pianist, not the bandleader – the Mondrian of jazz? On the surface, it sounds absurd. Maybe it is absurd: Basie, the short, rotund, cheerful groovemeister of irresistible foot-tapping swing; Piet Mondrian, the slim, ascetic, somber patron saint of meditative static abstraction. Nevertheless, in their respective arts, they did seem to share a fundamental belief in the purity of a style – one based upon a strict limitation of content; technique that restrained (but did not totally exclude) emotional expression; precisely gauged formal proportions; a carefully balanced, albeit asymmetrical, sense of organization; and an absolute idiomatic clarity. In Basie’s case, this was the concise, formally simple, variational style of the blues; in Mondrian’s case, this was the concise, formally simple, variational style of the grid.

These thoughts occurred to me gradually after reading some commentary on Basie’s piano playing, first by Andre Hodeir, then Gunther Schuller. Both have strong reservations about Basie as a creative pianist. In “The Count Basie Riddle,” an essay written in 1954 and reprinted in Towards Jazz (Grove Press), Hodeir complained of Basie’s “extreme melodic monotony.” In criticizing Basie for not handling the blues in a “broad-minded” (that is, by implication, modern) fashion as did Earl Hines and John Lewis, he wrote, “His is a strictly traditional approach however, and often leads him to make repeated use of melodic figures which are already worn to the born,” and continued by describing Basie’s blues as “trivial” and “full of melodic clichés.” Schuller, in The Swing Era (Oxford), published in 1989, at first characterized Basie’s manner as “laconic,” with a “freshness of discovery,” and found “delicious blue-note dissonances” and “piquant” details in the November 1938 and January ‘39 Decca recordings Basie made with just his band’s incomparable rhythm section (Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums). But he quickly echoed Hodeir – “…on these sides we also hear, almost glaringly the problem with Basie’s style: its clichés and formal solutions. And through the years the mannerisms, which in 1938 were already becoming quite predictable, long since, alas, turned into empty mechanical ciphers, which the fingers twiddle out mindlessly.”

Of course, Basie’s role as a band pianist largely falls outside of this criticism, or should, because there he fulfilled different dramatic functions – setting tempos suitable for a full orchestra; creating dynamic and tonal contrasts within an arrangement; accompanying and serving as counterpoint to other soloists. However, in the small group sessions of 1938 and ’39, the four quartet sides with the same rhythm section for the Blues by Basie (Columbia) 78-rpm album of 1942, and the frequent combo dates initiated by Norman Granz in the 1970s (especially those without horns), Basie was solely responsible for the content and shape of the music, and these are the performances by which his pianistic concept should be judged. There’s no argument that his primary focus was always on the blues, and Hodeir was right twice when he said, first of all, that his was a “strictly traditional approach,” and second, that when playing standards (Tin Pan Alley songs) his style was different and “quite literal.” (It’s easy to hear the differences between Basie’s melodically faithful paraphrases and thematic restructuring of songs like “I’ll Always Be in Love With You,” “As Long As I Live,” or “I Surrender, Dear,” and his curt, concentrated blues playing on the 1974-75 trio albums For The First Time and For The Second Time [both Pablo].) But by not recognizing the tension that resulted from the combination of his reverence for tradition and his abstraction of the blues – reducing it to its formal essence rather than attempting to sustain a sequence of blues-tinged melodies – Hodeir and Schuller miss the point of Basie’s originality.

Why, and how, did Basie abstract the blues? It’s important to remember that unlike Morton or Ellington, or even, closer to home, his two earliest influences, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, Basie did not think like a composer. He did not search for imaginative structures or distinctive harmonic settings, but was more comfortable working within a predetermined format, in the same way that Mondrian, despite being a brilliant draftsman (his 1908 drawing of a chrysanthemum has acutely registered detail comparable to that of Dürer), ultimately chose to neither “distort” representational images a la the Cubists nor to “compose” abstracted shapes in the manner of a Kandinsky or Klee, but eventually settled on a format of straight lines, right angles, and primary colors, which, like the blues, was simultaneously familiar, repetitious, and infinitely variable. (Perhaps this would be a good place to mention Mondrian’s deep attraction to boogie-woogie, via pianists like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson, and his 1927 essay “Jazz and Neo-Plastic [Art],” where he compares the two, although in a sometimes contradictory way, as “life realized through pure rhythm” and sees the revitalization of form as expression through equilibrated relationships.)

On the 21 August 1968 broadcast of Ralph Gleason’s National Educational Television program Jazz Casual (the soundtrack of which was at one time issued by Koch Jazz), Basie surprisingly acknowledged that though a youthful disciple of Fats Waller growing up on the East Coast, it wasn’t until he got to Kansas City that he became familiar with the blues, especially through the playing of Pete Johnson, and though the style was even then considered “dated,” he was drawn to it in his search for a musical identity. Curiously enough, though attempting to master Waller’s stride style must have required more technique than that of the traditional piano blues – and Basie almost insouciantly rips into a dazzling two-fisted chorus of Waller’s “Handful of Keys” as an example for Gleason before begging off, modestly saying it was too difficult for him – the blues became Basie’s comfort zone, a place where technique and compositional creativity no longer mattered, but could be replaced by formal ingenuity, stylistic acumen, and wit. The blues’ familiarity and ease of communication to a general public also fit Basie’s personality. But how could he reconcile the traditions that he heard in Pete Johnson – or the even simpler, yet profoundly affecting, phrasing of a Cow Cow Davenport, Cripple Clarence Lofton, or Pinetop Smith, all older than Basie and becoming popular at this time – with the up-to-date rhythms that were emerging in the Bennie Moten band, in part through Walter Page’s evenly accented four-beat bass playing, and elsewhere though the heightened intensity of Kansas City’s latest discovery, the riff?

If the blues is a music of tonal and rhythmic nuance, of tension built upon repetition and its resolution, then Basie shrewdly concocted a personal manner that emphasized not its emotional substance (which depends on individual conviction and exaggerations of tonal or vocal gestures) or extended melodic development (which is apparently what Hodeir and Schuller expected of him) but instead a radical dissection of what Raymond Horricks (in Count Basie and His Orchestra: Its Music and Musicians [Citadel]) called “its constructional merits” – in this case, a reduction, or abstraction, of the form down to its most basic components: tempo, harmonic intervals, and rhythm. To focus more attention on the various degrees of rhythmic intensity he brought to a single performance, Basie devised interval-based melodic figures – or as they became known in avant-garde classical composition, “cells” – which allowed him to construct choruses by juxtaposing several figures, extending them with trills or repeated triplet phrasing, altering them slightly, and/or spacing them out elliptically. (Hodeir saw Basie’s reliance on figures, rather than melodies, as problematic – failing to see their potential for subtle structural diversity – and though he acknowledged Basie’s rhythmic organization had potential for the future (e.g. Monk?), he complained that his jolting left hand interjections, remnants of his stride days, were “disruptive.”) Basie’s rhythmic sense has always been characterized by impeccable timing (the placement of his notes for the best possible effect, dramatic or humorous) and touch (alternating between remarkable delicacy and aggressive authority), and coordinating his rhythmic and melodic movement so precisely – in Mondrian’s terms, the “dynamic movement of form and color” – ultimately defined the Basie Style. In this way, in early pieces such as “Dupree Blues” or the two versions, four years apart, of “How Long Blues,” every pause becomes a melodrama of anticipation, every altered phrase a tectonic shift. The inherent simplicity of the process, however, is deceptive; just as anyone could come up with a basic Mondrian – a few intersecting black lines on a white field, and a couple of the boxes filled in with red or blue – it is the resulting tension between the relationships, and not the amount of effort, that determines its value.

It would be unfair to judge the expressiveness of Basie’s style solely from those 1938-42 examples because he was still in the process of forging its ever-so-subtle idiosyncratic relationships. He participated in hundreds of recordings and thousands of performances with his orchestra in the decades between the 1930s and the ‘70s, and as the style and often the material remained the same, one might see how Basie could be accused of predictability and cliché. But the small group sessions of the ‘70s, especially the trio dates, reveal some interesting contradictions to what we thought we knew about Basie the pianist. The opening number on For The First Time, “Baby Lawrence,” dedicated to the tap dancer “Baby Laurence” Jackson, is an unexpected return to Basie’s earliest roots, Walleresque stride, at a sizzling tempo, something he neglected to record in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The dramatized interplay between his right hand filigree and intermittent, thunderous left hand bass lines denies Hodeir’s claim that Basie was a “one-armed pianist,” despite his dependence on a Walter Page or, here, a Ray Brown. By way of contrast “Blues in the Alley” is a lovely, dignified, perfectly poised statement of old school blues playing, slow, sparse in texture, melodically understated, nothing that would ruffle Pete Johnson’s feathers – and a mirror reflection of Basie’s “Way Back Blues” (note the irony of the title, for 1942). (And how could Hodeir have missed the wit and audacity of the latter’s introduction?) On For the Second Time, the crisp percussive phrasing and stride references in “Draw” show how Basie modernized his basic approach, and “Racehorse” is another sprint to the finish line, with obsessively repeated notes, arpeggiated chords, and out of tempo touches, all confirming the debt Monk owed Basie. The adventurousness of his playing, including darting attacks, ambiguous clusters, erased bar lines, and his ever-present employment of silence to create tension, is anything but “twiddle(d) out mindlessly.”

If these two recordings give the clearest example of how Basie’s “mannerisms” remained vital and eloquent after four decades, there are also any number of isolated moments in the more cluttered and inevitably uneven jam sessions that Pablo waxed which reward one’s attention – even the conceptually preposterous but occasionally exhilarating pairing of Basie with his stylistic opposite, Oscar Peterson. If nothing else, they reaffirm the authority, integrity, and potency of the Basie Style, and, as a parallel to the posthumous influence of Mondrian’s similarly refined concept among artists like Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner, Charles Biederman and a host of others, suggest that as conceptual inspiration, there may be life in the old style yet.

Art Lange©2010

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