The 100th Listen – “April In Paris”

By Sam Griffith

April In Paris by Count Basie and His Orchestra is an unbelievable aural assault of articulation, dynamics, swing and soul. The title track was a big commercial success in the 1950s. Many of the other arrangements made popular by this recording remain relevant and are a common part of most professional group’s repertoire. On this album there are many great things….. and as well as a little weirdness.

BIG BAND SOUND

One of the greatest attributes of this album is the actual recording quality of the band’s sound. The band sounds amazing. Right from the first few bars of April In Paris, the band sound is established and we can hear the power, subtly, cleanliness and majesty that the Count Basie band played with. This sound is enhanced with a few important considerations:

  • Intonation. The band plays in-tune at all times, which greatly enhances the power of the sound. The more glaring the intonation problems, the less powerful the sound. In this recording, the band is not held back by any intonation problems at all.
  • Phrasing as a band. One of the Basie bands greatest attributes is the collective ability to phrase and groove together. Some (and probably to many people) credit the Basie band with frequently “laying back”. While this is true in sections, the bands ability to “lay back” or “drag” is not what separates them from other groups. It’s their ability to ALWAYS phrase together. The band doesn’t ALWAYS lay back. The band lays back only in specific moments to help set the mood or create some rhythmic tension.  3:19 on Corner Pocket is a great moment where the band “lays back” to create some rhythmic tension.
  • Phrasing in instrumental sections. While the phrasing as a band is fantastic, there are many moments on this record where specific instrumental sections are featured. On April In Paris the saxophone are featured with the melody at the 0:15 mark.  The trombones absolutely obliterate (in a good way) the end tag.
  • Dynamics. This band plays unbelievable dynamics. In almost every song there are several quality moments where the band plays quiet, usually contrasting the brilliant power of the band. 2:40 on Didn’t You is a great example of the bands ability to play quiet which is contrasted several choruses later.
  • Articulation. This is a major topic so let us address it in much more detail

DOOS and DOTS

This album is an articulation clinic. You will find examples of every time of articulation performed brilliantly. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.

  • The saxophone melody in Corner Pocket is a great performance of slurred eighth-notes with off-beat accents. The band soli at the 3:10 mark has several great moments. There is a great pitch bend at 3:16 in the brass.
  • The short and long articulation used in the saxophones in the melody of Didn’t You is fantastic.
  • The saxophone interpretation of Sweetie Cakes is impeccable.

MONOTONY

One little problem with this album is the programming on music. We’ve talked in great detail about the power that the band generates. However, some of this effect is lessened by the programming of the album. The first six tracks are all relatively close in tempo and style. Corner Pocket and Didn’t You are the 2nd and 3rd tracks respectively, and are deadly close to the same tempo. Several of the later tracks (the un-PC-titled – Midgets and Mambo Inn) could probably be more effectively placed somewhere early in the recording to help break up the styles featured in the recording. While the swing charts are all fantastic and executed with beautiful musicality, it can be overbearing if you leave it in your CD player for too long.

SOLOS

This is not an album you buy for the improvisations. Not saying that they are bad, but that soloists are rarely featured for more than a chorus at a time (if that!). Thad Jones’s solo on April In Paris is probably the most memorable of any, unfortunately so much so that it lead to Jones being pressured to always perform the same solo. While the improvisations on this record aren’t the most memorable, the drumming is an absolute clinic on big band playing.

DRUMS

Shadow Wilson plays unbelievably for most of the album. All of the shout sections, solis, solos and melody sections are beautifully played by Wilson. His mastery of set-ups, fills, breaks and kicks are all perfect. This is a great example for educators wanting to provide a solid recording for big band drumming. Of special note, is Wilsons playing on Shiny Stockings and Corner Pocket. Both of these tunes have become pillars in jazz big band repertoire, and Wilsons playing should be observed in these sections. Wilson’s ability to play creativity in the eighth-note triplet and sixteenth note levels is outstanding. Most jazz improvisation takes place at the eighth-note level, with some occasional forays into faster levels. Wilson works at the faster levels with an unbelievable fluidity. Developing Wilson’s freedom (and comfort level) soloing with triplets and sixteenth notes is something we should all aspire to.

CONCLUSION – OLD HOPE

This album should be required listening for any aspiring MUSICIAN, jazz or not. The unified concepts of phrasing, band ariticulation, interpretation of figures and powerful musicality should be absorbed by any musician who wants a career playing music, especially in jazz big band or musical pit settings. For jazz musicians seeking an album featuring improvisation, or rhythm-section interaction, this is not the album for you. Nor is the programming ideal for uninterrupted listening. Everything else however, is top-notch.

The 100th Listen is dedicated to reviewing and analyzing classic jazz recordings while considering their relevance to jazz history and pedagogy. Visit my webpage – http://www.samuelgriffith.com

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