Big Bands Are Back!

Singing a song of Leiber and Stoller and Basie....

Have you heard?
Big bands are back!

Even the folks who award the Pulitzer Prizes think so: Last week, a finalist for the music Pulitzer was composer/arranger Maria Schneider, whose 2020 longform work Data Lords showcases gorgeous, provocative, fundamentally new approaches to writing for large jazz(ish) ensemble.

And this week, at the extreme other end of the spectrum, a UK label is finally bringing back one of the enduring curiosities of the big-band canon: Two instrumental records associated with the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. You know, the team that wrote “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Hound Dog.” Scooby Doo, recorded in 1956 and credited to Leiber and pianist Ernie Freeman, was originally issued with the subtitle “Good Rock and Roll for Dancing” and featured velvet-toned tenorman Plas Johnson in an easygoing small group configuration.

A followup of sorts from 1960, Yakety Yak, was credited to the Leiber-Stoller Big Band – but it’s really the Count Basie Orchestra minus Count. That means rhythm guitar genius Freddie Green, and Al Grey on trombone, and (incredibly, on some tracks) Hank Jones on piano. This features crisp Basie-style arrangements, some by saxophonist Frank Foster, of “Jailhouse Rock” and other classics recorded by Elvis Presley, the Coasters and others.

The new collection, available Friday, merges the two under the truth-in-advertising title Good Rock And Roll For Dancing. It’s a breezy trip down Daddy-O Drive, an artifact from that brief period when the jazz cats had something to say about their work being eclipsed by rock – but were not yet raiding the rock songbook for some quick crossover coin. (For an example, among thousands, of that, check the mostly forgettable 1966 Basie release Basie’s Beatle Bag.)

With its cat-calling blues tunes, jump rhythms and nonsensical linguistics, the works of Leiber and Stoller are nearly a perfect match for Basie. The charts of Yakety Yak are clear and uncomplicated; they frame the nuances of the familiar melodies with brassy smears and shakes. The well-known tunes (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City”) translate to horn-section adaptation pretty much the way you’d expect, but some of the lesser-known songs, like “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” blossom in the big-band setting.

The key, throughout, is the Basie rhythm section’s distinct and effortless unity. These guys were not psyched out by rock. They understood it in a continuum with the blues and everything else, and they create a foundation that pretty much decimates any genre distinctions – refreshing, considering this is decades before the recent music-critic proclamation about “The End of Genre.” How locked were these guys? One clue comes in the improvised sections, where the soloists sound eminently comfortable as they savor the perfectly apt, nothing-fancy demeanor of the session.  

The Basie band started as a dance band. And across its incredible run, from its Kansas City beginnings through its bright and blazing 1958 hit The Atomic Mr. Basie through a muted middle-of-the-road record it made in 1960 (String Along With Basie), it was always that. Regardless of the era, the band never drifted too far from its core mission of playing for dancers, its businesslike sense of motion, the infectious minimalism of its well-oiled parts. In a sense, Leiber and Stoller had to call on Basie for this project: No other crew could have captured the renegade energy of rock and roll in 1960. While swinging, and swinging hard.

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Why no audio? In recent weeks I made several attempts to create playlists and/or link to the existing reissues of Scooby-Doo and Yakety Yak on streaming services. They are listed there but will not play. The only conclusion is that the label behind the new reissue, Jasmine Records, has scrubbed all previous iterations ahead of Friday’s release. We’ll see.

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