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Music Monday: Big Band, High Tech

Your Humble Blogger likes to grab a handful of CDs at the library, figuring it’s free and what the hell, anyway. By an odd coincidence, two of the ones I picked up last week were Blue Rose, with Rosemary Clooney and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Ray Sings, Basie Swings. The odd coincidence is not that they are both singers I like performing with bands I like. There wouldn’t be anything coincidental about that; I picked the albums off the shelves, after all. No, the coincidence actually is that they are both billed as singers I like performing with bands I like, but the singers and the bands were not in the same place.

In 1956, Rosemary Clooney was pregnant and unwell, and under Doctor’s orders not to travel. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, on the other hand, was neither pregnant nor unwell (depending on one’s definition of unwell, I suppose), and was traveling unceasingly. They were both new to Columbia Records, and the genius marketing idea of pairing them was too good to pass up, so the Duke recorded some backing arrangements in New York (or Chicago, the stories differ) and sent them to California along with Billy Strayhorn, and Ms. Clooney recorded the vocals there.

The album is pretty good; it’s late for the Duke, his soloists are not his top soloists (Ray Nance is not Bubber Miley), and when they are his top soloists they are not at the tops of their games, but the band works together like the well-oiled proverbial, and they still swing. This is after the Nelson Riddle sound became famous and successful (for Ms. Clooney, among other people), and the pace is much slower than I like, but it’s not otherwise Nelson-Riddle-ish, which is a Good Thing. And I don’t hear any problem with the transcontinental recording process; she doesn’t sound like she’s in another room, nor is it obvious that the band isn’t responding to her vocals. It seems like the album was not the big success Columbia Records was looking for (and Duke Ellington never did produce a #1 record again), but it’s one of those albums that Jazz People like.

Ray Sings, Basie Swings is a different story; first of all, the vocals tracks came first, which is less the usual thing, as I understand it. And although it is fundamentally true that Count Basie swings, I don’t know that the fact has anything to do with this album, other than that the big band arrangements to back the vocals were put together in a Basie-esque style. Count Basie had nothing to do with the recording; the thing was put together as a sort of wish-fulfillment on the part of the record company, when they found some Ray Charles vocal tracks from a show in Germany in the 70s and decided they were too good to let lie, despite the band’s sound being muddy and indistinct. If only there were a good band track to go along with this, they thought, and the rest is whatnot.

And, oddly enough, the album smokes. It’s not Basie, by any means, and that’s a shame, because the execs were right; Ray Charles backed by Count Basie would be awesome. But even though it’s not Basie, it’s a good band (the current band with the Count Basie name) and good arrangements, and Mr. Charles does some incredible vocals, particularly on “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Every Saturday Night”. And I totally wouldn’t have known or noticed that it’s a zombie vocal track.

In theory, I find these things deceptive and dishonest, but in practice, the albums are fine. Of course, I’m just listening to them for free; I might come to a different opinion if I had money at stake.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,