When Basie Was Jazz' Greatest Dance Master

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The title of "Taxi War Dance," the classic 1939 Count Basie record starring the tenor saxophone icon Lester Young, sounds like something out of "Transformers." But I've always assumed that the title referred not to anthropomorphic automobiles, but to the so-called taxi dancers of the 1920s and '30s who would dance with male patrons in ballrooms for a dime a throw.

Dancing was a crucial concept in the music of William "Count" Basie. If his colleague, Duke Ellington, was American music's master painter, using the 15-piece big band as a canvas to express an infinite variety of tonal colors, hues and shadings, then Basie was jazz's greatest dance master, a musical choreographer. And the saxophonist Lester Young was his greatest vehicle. This becomes especially clear in a CD set from Mosaic Records that gathers most of the principal works of the Basie-Young collaboration.

Comparing the relationships shared by a choreographer and a dancer with that of a bandleader and his principal soloist only takes us so far. George Balanchine, for example, was an autocratic auteur who ran the show from backstage. Basie (1904-84) was considerably less dictatorial, though he called the shots and set the tone for Young's ingenious flights of fancy while actually onstage with him. Basie, who led the rhythm section behind Young and a long succession of improvisational giants, helped shape what they played and how it sounded more than any of the arrangers whom he hired to give the band a score to work from.

If Ellington had written "Taxi War Dance," he might well have depicted animated autos; his music was inherently programmatic, and he continually painted pictures of sophisticated ladies with warm valleys and cottontails (or even flaming swords). Basie's music at first seems to be "about" nothing more than inspiring dancers to move, yet that was more than enough and entirely fitting, since he and his sidemen (especially Young) were all dancers themselves.

On the surface, the deepest element of Basie's music seems to have been the extremely rhythmic variations on the blues and the colorful takes on popular songs of his era. Yet even if timing is everything, it isn't the only thing. The art of choreography doesn't only exist in time, it exists in physical space; likewise, Young and Basie can be said to have played in three dimensions. In the same way that Einstein proved that light has weight, when Young crafted a solo, he alighted from the ensemble in a way that imbued his music with a physical solidity. Each note existed in perspective, every emotion examined from many different angles, and the improvised melody itself had a concrete physical shape.

The Mosiac box includes four sessions by Young with small groups, and apart from the first of these (the legendary Smith-Jones date from 1936, when Basie, Young, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Carl Smith recorded as Smith-Jones Incorporated for Vocalion), the package is all big-band material from 1939 and 1940. Young's small-group performances, most famously the dozen or so sessions he shared with musical soul mate Billie Holiday, were amazingly democratic: All of the players get equal solo space, and even the star singer is confined to a single chorus.

Not so on the Basie sessions: The bulk of these are solo features that spotlight him more like a king than as an elected official or public servant. There are other solo stars here, notably the trombonist Dicky Wells, trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Buck Clayton, as well as two excellent band singers in Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes. Still, the material is skewed toward Young. The four discs here do not contain the band's complete output of the period, just those numbers on which Young solos.

Young's own most famous composition was "Lester Leaps In," an "I Got Rhythm" variation heard here in its original 1939 recording. But he does much more than leap in and out. On "Taxi War Dance," "Tickle Toe," "Riff Interlude," and others, Young suddenly materializes in front of the band and then disappears in a puff of smoke like a magician; among many other things, the man certainly knew how to make an entrance.

And he did more than dance in front of the chorus; as heard on the Mosaic discs, he interacts with the rhythm section, as well as the brass and reed sections, in back-and-forth exchanges that had artistic precedents in world culture, from the Platonic dialogues to Gilbert and Sullivan. Young not only launches "Taxi" (which, as Loren Schoenberg points out in his excellent notes, is based on "Willow Weep for Me") with a full-tilt solo at the start, but he returns at the coda for a round-robin exchange in which he sounds like a kung-fu master ducking body blows.

Even at their most jubilant, Young's solos contain the bittersweet emotional nuances that were already his trademark in the late 1930s. As conveyed by the many famous images of Young playing his horn while holding it sideways and at all sorts of goofy angles, he seems to be defying gravity while keeping both feet on the ground. Later on, in his own combos, Young, the unsentimental romantic, would come to the fore, in an age when he would actually play the melody to "Willow Weep for Me." But in 1939-40, even as the Basie band played the melody to a standard or ballad, they never gave Young a shot at it — which, as Mr. Schoenberg suggests, was part of the reason why Young eventually felt compelled to leave the band, though there would be many reunions.

Yet even though Young doesn't get to play the tune on "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," in his improvised solo, he more than conveys the feeling that composer Harold Arlen had in mind: a nuanced, emotional display that lands between love and hate, night and day, or the devil and the deep blue sea.

It's been said that a close listener can hear the whole history of the music being played in the performance of a major contemporary jazz master. With Lester Young, as with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, one can hear a lot more, even the very whole of the human condition.

This article was originally published in 2008 in The New York Sun