Considered by some to be the Count's last great masterpiece, Basie and his orchestra's The Atomic Mr. Basie blasts big band swing at its edgy and exciting best, still filling the space that would soon become the domain of rhythm and blues and later rock and roll. Popular, fashionable, mainstream jazz would eventually evolve away from big swing bands, using small combos to further the bebop revolution and refine the cool movement. In many situations, jazz became a sit-down affair, one to be digested with the keenest of detached intellectual and musical acumen. In this set, the Count emphatically reminds us that jazz is for the feet first, the heart second, and the mind ... well. Far be it for me to put words into the Count's mouth. The music speaks for itself.
The album blasts off with a nuclear detonation in the form of the white hot "Kid from Red Bank," and the intensity and excitement never let up. Basie's stride piano playing takes center stage with percussive chord clusters and mercurial scale runs. The seismic dynamic shifts from rumbling rhythm section to radiant full-band explosions serve notice that this album is no run-of-the-mill affair. In less than three minutes, The Count and his band annihilate the dance hall. I imagine an exhausted, grinning audience expelling a collective, sweaty exhale as the last notes fade away. Basie follows that up with the slinky, sexy "Duet." Muted trumpets weave in and out of low brass stabs and chromatically descending woodwinds as the rubbery-est upright bass syncopates with back-scratchingly satisfying brush work on the drums. Basie stays with the down-tempo feel and makes one wonder, "What, exactly, is going to happen 'After Supper'?"
This tension and release is repeated for the duration of the album: A high-octane barn burner followed by something a little bit more seductive and intimate. But regardless of the dynamic or tempo of a given tune is the tightness with which this band performs, making those performances all the more impressive. Yes, there are solo highlights. Tenor sax monster Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Eddie Jones's propellant bass constantly stand out. The real treat, however, proves to be the seamless blending of the horns, winds, and rhythm sections not just amongst themselves but as a complete unit, which ultimately serves as a wonderful testament to Basie's enduring legacy as one of the most deft bandleaders in jazz history.
Finally, this album is not some dusty museum piece to be ruminated on or revered from a safe distance. This style of jazz's composers, arrangers, and performers were the rock stars of their day. This was the music of youth, vigor, and joy. This was the soundtrack for a generation beset by cataclysmic global economic collapse, catastrophic global war, and vicious, deep-seated racial segregation whose forms of entertainment functioned as release and relief from those terrible trials. This music celebrates life and being alive. Don't simply dine to this music or use it as background noise. It's designed to make you move, to feel deeply and to be grateful to still have a heartbeat. Do the Count and his cohorts the kindness of treating it as such and swing, baby.
Listen to this one again. And again ... and ... yeah, a third time for good measure.