A Splendid Intersection, A Treasured Neighborhood
Singer-songwriter-cornetist Al Basile spends most of his waking hours walking the musical neighborhood. Fellow travelers know the cat right away from his literate conversations and the soulful swing to his gait. But there’s no swagger here, merely the confidence that comes from living comfortably near the intersection of Blues Street and Jazz Avenue. He knows both thoroughfares better than most, in a neighborhood that has served him so very well. His throwback musical career is entrenched in the instrumental, vocal and literate sides of the blues (with an often-overlapping soul-jazz sound) and an occasional holiday visit back to his first musical love, classic Swing Jazz. On this particular walk down Jazz Avenue late in 2013, Al cut over to Swing Terrace, a favorite mini-hood, to hang out with treasured friends on four blocks: the Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties and the Sixties.
The 1930s through the 1960s were the essential well for the music, because each of these classic tunes – many long neglected by today’s listeners and other performers – were well crafted in ways that tell memorable stories. “That’s the kind of stuff that I like – well-written, evocative lyrics with which you can be a singing actor,” Al says. “To me, Sinatra was a great singing actor. In that same vein, this was my chance to pick tunes that have great characters in great [stories] situations that I could pretend I was in.” In most cases, Al got two bites of the apple – both as a singer and a fine horn player.
Swing n’ Strings is Al’s second dedicated jazz project in a skein of ten recordings over fifteen years. On 2003’s Red Breath, he included a few jazz originals in addition to standards. This time, he and his band-mates focused on interpreting classic material. Al won’t disagree if you call him a generational throwback. He considers it a compliment. “This music really is a reflection of my taste. Every tune on the record is a tune I’ve always wanted to do. In my own mind, I live with that music every day so it is not out of date. In a sense, I pulled together some of my favorite things to show to a generation – (or two or three) – that missed that stuff.”
The open and intimate chamber-jazz sound of the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet from the early 1970s was the model for Swing n’ Strings, which has been playing in and around Providence, Rhode Island for several years. While Ruby Braff and Al Basile idolized and learned from Armstrong and have essentially vocal sounds and phrase-based solo styles, they sound very different. Ruby embellished the melody as Pops did, adding more ornamentation, while Al absorbed Armstrong’s technique of improvising on the rhythm by starting phrases in different places, sometimes far behind the beat and then catching up within the phrase. You’d be hard pressed to find another horn player who plays or sounds like Al Basile.
Swing n’ Strings features two guitarists (Fred Bates and Bob Zuck), a bassist (longtime collaborator Marty Ballou), the leader on cornet and vocals, and former Roomful of Blues band-mate Rich Lataille on alto and tenor saxes on four tracks. Basile was Roomful’s first trumpet player (1973 to 1975) and Lataille is the only remaining member of Roomful’s original horn section. Basile says each of the players has the same love for classic Swing Jazz and Ballou has another essential talent: the ability to lay the beat down like a drummer and still listen to everybody, and play off what everybody else is playing. Both guitarists have interesting pedigrees. Zuck was a founding member of the Widespread Depression Jazz Orchestra and the Hatfield-McCoy Trio, an Appalachian Swing group. He mostly plays rhythm here and provides the vocals on “I Know What I've Got, Don't Know What I'm Getting.” Bates, who co-led the Hamilton-Bates Blue Flames with Scott Hamilton in Providence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is back in fine form after more than 30 years away from music. He didn’t even own a guitar for a couple of decades, but Al coaxed him back into the music scene about six years ago.
This is a CD to savor, from the gentle swing of “Oh, You Crazy Moon” to the spirited, up-tempo “Heat Wave,” the latter a showcase for Fred. And there is one genre-jumping tune selection that fits just fine. The 1960s material is rounded out with a swinging take on The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” which Paul McCartney wrote for 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” though it was credited to both McCartney and John Lennon. You’ll enjoy the band’s approach.
Al Basile says the biggest thrill in performing and recording with this band is its members’ “harmony of taste and vision. We really all are coming from the same place musically. It is very rare to encounter a unanimity of taste among very accomplished players.” As listeners, we are privileged to enjoy the fruits of that musical labor.
Whether you are a regular visitor to Swing Terrace or are circling the block looking for an on ramp to other byways, it is well worth your time to check out this band’s special approach to classic jazz. So many musical journeys started right here. Welcome to the neighborhood.
KEN FRANCKLING, January 2014
(Veteran freelance jazz journalist and photographer Ken Franckling was United Press International’s jazz columnist for 19 years. He now writes for JazzTimes, HotHouse, allaboutjazz.com and his blog, Ken Franckling’s Jazz Notes.)
Al's Notes on Swing n' Strings
This record was made under unusual circumstances. We were booked to play an outdoor concert for the Rhode Island Historical Society's summer series in July of 2013. It had been a long time since we'd played out, so it was easier to work up a new set list and new arrangements than to try to remember the old ones. Fred and Bob began meeting at my house for rehearsals in February, and they did a lot of great work arranging the songs we chose for two guitars and bass. We brought Marty and Rich in for later rehearsals and were ready to play when heavy rain on the day of the concert forced a cancellation. The Historical Society had already committed their rain date to a band that had been rained out earlier in the summer, so the best they could do was offer us a date in 2014. This was very kind but I knew it involved a problem: since we worked so little, we would have no chance to repeat the new arrangements enough to set them in our memories. After a year passed they'd be forgotten. I got a brainstorm: let's record the new arrangements with the band and have both a handy reference for us when next summer arrived, and a CD we could have available to the concertgoers to commemorate the event they'd just heard.
I was already working with Duke Robillard on my tenth solo CD, Woke Up in Memphis, for my Sweetspot label, which used him and his band to back me on 14 of my own new songs in a 1960s Memphis soul/gospel/R&B vein – very different from the swing-based jazz of Swing n' Strings, especially when it came to the vocal style. It made for a busy and rather schizophrenic summer and fall for me, as we worked on both records simultaneously, often switching from one day to another. But it was exhilarating as well. I'm especially proud of the way Fred and Bob took to the studio experience, which was a newer one for them than for the rest of us. It's certainly a lesson on how one rainy day's disappointment can be transformed into a lasting source of satisfaction.