Count Basie: Live at the Sands (before Frank)
The mid-'60s are regarded as a creative low point for the Count Basie Orchestra, but this live recording proves that the Basie band was as stylish and swingin' as ever in 1966, though fewer folks were paying attention. Recorded during a week-long stint at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, this release compiles material from the band's opening sets prior to their performances with the main attraction that week, Frank Sinatra.
Live at the Sands serves as an excellent Basie sampler, in part because it offers many of the band's best-known tunes, including "Splanky," "Corner Pocket," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and a spare version of "One O'Clock Jump," Basie's signature song. There are also a few graceful ballads, making this a well-rounded collection.
By itself, Quincy Jones' arrangement of "I Can't Stop Loving You" makes this CD worth the price. It's simply the best instrumental version of Don Gibson's country classic I have heard, and it may be the best version period. When those killer horns top off the chorus with a breathy flourish, it's one of those sublime touches that separates great music from the ordinary.
The performances at the Sands are also notable because they marked the return of three of Basie's best-known sidemen: trombonist Al Grey, tenor saxman Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and drummer Sonny Payne. All three are featured prominently here, and they really deliver the goods. Grey's muted trombone leads the way on a mellow version of "Makin' Whoopee!," while Davis has several moments in the spotlight, including an extended solo on "Jumpin' at the Woodside," the CD's smoker.
Duke Ellington once credited Basie for having the best rhythm section in jazz. A great swing drummer has always sat at the heart of his orchestra, be he Philly Jo Jones, Rufus "Speedy" Jones, or Butch Miles, the band's current skins man. The flamboyant Sonny Payne rates with Basie's best, and on Live at the Sands he helps drive this music with his relentless swaying tempos.
William "Count" Basie had an unparalleled talent for stripping tunes down to their swinging essence. To this day, no big band swings with more riffing intensity and rhythmic precision. Young people who are into the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, or other pseudo jazz outfits simply must check out the swingingest music machine the world has yet seen, the Count Basie Orchestra. Live at the Sands serves an excellent introduction.