Count Basie and Frank Sinatra recorded three Reprise albums together—two studio dates in 1962 and 1964 plus a live recording at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1966. The two studio dates are remarkable for how artfully and neatly both swingers folded together, resulting in powerful finger-popping magic. Now both Sinatra-Basie: An Historical Musical First and It Might as Well Be Swing have been remastered and combined on one disc: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (Concord).
The beauty of this solidified disc is that you're able to to hear a crisp retooling of the masters that give Basie's band a more prominent, sonic role than earlier releases. At the same time you also get to compare and contrast the two albums and rank the efforts of the arrangers. The first date was handled by Neal Hefti, a long-time Basie collaborator, and the second was scored by Quincy Jones, a relative newcomer at the time to the West Coast scene though he had already worked with Sinatra on a concert in 1958. [Pictured: Quincy Jones, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra in 1964]
From Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie:
"At the very beginning of that October , we finally got around to making our first records with Frank Sinatra. That was something that both Frank and I had been looking forward to for a hell of a long time. I won't try to go into any explanations of all the reasons why we hadn't been able to get together before, but by that fall everything had fallen into place. We [the band] were just about at the end of our long-time deal with Roulette Records, and Chairman Frank had started his own record company, Reprise Records, and he said, 'Let's do it.'"
For the first album, everyone involved in the project agreed that Hefti would be the most logical choice for arranger, given that his earlier Basie charts had done the most to shape the New Testament band's jazz-pop feel. According to Will Friedwald's superb book, Sinatra! The Song Is You:
"Hefti described getting an assignment from Sinatra which included only one specific role for him in a delivered package,' and it started with a pile of sheet music and instructions from Sinatra and [Sinatra pianist] Bill Miller. Sinatra was no longer providing his writers with as detailed a map as he had in the '50s with Riddle, but still the songs, keys and tempos had already been determined. All Hefti had to do was work within the parameters of what Sinatra had already worked out."
But perhaps the oddest turn of events on the first album, according to Will's book, has been missed by the new album's liner notes and discographical information. According to Will, Basie didn't play piano on several of the tracks:
"'The day before the first date, we rehearsed all day, all night,' said Bill Miller, officially serving as contractor. 'Everybody also came in an hour before so we could go over them again.' As Joe Bushkin has pointed out, 'The Basie guys could read as well as any studio band,' but to help them nail the charts even tighter, Sinatra and Miller brought in ace lead trumpeter Al Porcino. Basie was a capable but not an expert reader, Miller continued, 'and he was very slow to learn new tunes, so on a couple of the songs, he said, You play it."
Long story short, according to Will, Bill Miller played piano on Pennies From Heaven. I'm not certain on which other tracks Miller subbed for Basie, but perhaps Will does and will let me know. Basie also doesn't sound like the pianist on The Good Life and a few others from the Quincy Jones session—yet he is credited as the pianist in the new album's notes.
So which of the two albums is better? Having covered professional boxing matches in my newspaper days when the beat reporter was off, I decided to score each song based on the punch of the arrangements—a 5 being a perfect execution for both singer and band. Points were taken off for clunkiness, a bad fit, dumb song choices and odd orchestrations (strings on the Jones album? Really?):
- Pennies from Heaven (5)
- Please Be Kind (4.5)
- Love Is the Tender Trap (5)
- Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses (3)
- My Kind of Girl (3)
- I Only Have Eyes for You (4)
- Nice Work If You Can Get It (4)
- Learnin' the Blues (4)
- I'm Gonna Sit Right Down (3)
- I Won't Dance (5)
- Fly Me to the Moon (5)
- I Wish You Love (4)
- I Believe in You (5)
- More (5)
- I Can't Stop Loving You (3)
- Hello Dolly (3)
- I Wanna Be Around (3)
- The Best Is Yet to Come (5)
- The Good Life (4.5)
- Wives and Lovers (5)
And the winner? Quincy Jones, by 2.5 points. A special mention must be made of Eric Dixon, whose blazing solo on Pennies from Heaven still stands arm hairs on end.
JazzWax tracks: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (Concord) can be found here.
JazzWax note: I've reached out again to trumpeter and high-note specialist Al Porcino to see if he recalls any more details about the two sessions.
JazzWax clip: Here's a bootleg run-through of Pennies From Heaven. The pianist clearly isn't Basie...