Composed and arranged (*) by Neal Hefti.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Clef on August 13, 1953 in Los Angeles.
William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Reunald Jones, Wendell Culley, Cynder “Paul” Campbell and Joe Newman, B-flat trumpets; Johnny Mandel, bass trumpet; Henry Coker, and Benny Powell trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Ernie Wilkins, alto saxophone; Frank Foster and Frank Wess, tenor saxophones; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Gus Johnson, drums.
(*) Neal Hefti later stated that: “I wrote a theme and what amounted to a trumpet ad lib chorus. It became what can be called a band ad lib…” or what jazz musicians call a “head” arrangement, developed over time by the members of the Basie band, including of course, Count Basie himself. (1)
By the summer of 1953, Count Basie’s “New Testament” (2) band was swinging in typical Basie fashion, meaning very strongly. Basie, like most of the great leaders of the swing era, had a very specific idea of how he wanted his band to sound, and relished “casting” musicians in roles where he thought they could perform best. This process, which took time and a lot of trial-and-error, was more or less constantly ongoing, as men came and went. Basie was a patient man. Periodically however, the personnel of the Basie band stabilized for periods of time. When the Basie band recorded “Plymouth Rock,” it had entered such a period of personnel stability.
In terms of its music, Basie’s “New Testament” band featured many of the classics from the repertoire of his “Old Testament” band. But in addition, they were constantly trying out new music, written by arrangers who were new to Basie, but nevertheless were conversant with swing in general, and Basie-style swing in particular. That meant, of course, the music had to have a strong rhythmic component, and very often, be blues-based. One such new arranger whose work seemed to fit this Basie band perfectly was Neal Hefti.
Trumpeter/arranger Neal Hefti (1922-2008) had started his rise to prominence in the world of swing in 1945 in the Woody Herman band. Among the composition/arrangements he wrote for that band are some of the the classics of the Herman repertoire: “Wild Root,” “The Good Earth,” “Apple Honey,” “Blowin’ Up a Storm,” and “Caledonia.” Hefti went on to a successful career after leaving the Herman band in 1946. He was a very important contributor to the music of the Count Basie band of the 1950s. “Lil Darling,” “Splanky,” “Flight of the Foo Birds,” and “Teddy the Toad,” “Cute” and “Plymouth Rock” are among the originals he wrote for the Basie band then. Hefti later moved on to a very successful career in films (Batman) and television (The Odd Couple), that started in the 1960s and continued for the next thirty-plus years.
Here is how Hefti recalled (in the 1970s) his role in the Basie band in the early to mid 1950s: “I sincerely believe that the 50 works of mine that Basie recorded with his big band spelled the difference between bankruptcy and the approximately $2 million annual grosses that he is enjoying today. Purist or non-purist (in the early 1950s) this was strictly a life and death situation, and obviously, his pre-war band wasn’t working anymore. This was indeed a musical heart transplant that worked.” (3) (At right: Neal Hefti in the 1950s.)
Hefti’s allusion to “purist or non-purist” refers to the debate that was going on in the 1950s about the relative musical merits of the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” Basie bands that raged among critics, writers and fans of Basie’s music. That debate, like so many others like it, is largely an academic exercise that leads nowhere. The clear historical truth to have emerged in the wake of Basie’s Old and New Testament bands is that both were superb musical aggregations, and both produced a lot of great music that today is a part of the cultural fabric of what we know as “swing.”
Despite the large contribution of Neal Hefti to the ongoing success of Count Basie’s New Testament band, there were many other factors that also contributed greatly to that success. In my view, paramount of all such factors was Basie’s genius as the leader and musical director of his band. His style of leadership, which flowed directly from his personality, like his piano playing, was understated, often humorous, and cool. Many of the musicians who worked with Basie over many decades said in essence the same thing about this: that he led, very strongly, yet those being led were rarely aware that they were being led.
In listening to Count Basie’s recording of “Plymouth Rock,” I am struck by how successfully he sythesized from conception, through development of the music, through its performance and recording, his idea of how this band was going to sound. The bedrock upon which all of this rests is the blues. From that, Basie, through arranger Neal Hefti, built the music to an explosive climax via a slow, indeed insinuating process of gradualism, with a few contrasts, both large and small, along the way. Also, Basie’s tempo selection is perfect to accomplish all of this, to maximum musical effect. “He wanted a slow blues with an enormous number of ensemble choruses in it” recalled Hefti, somewhat dubiously many years later. (4) Basie harbored no doubts however: he knew what would work.
The cup-muted trumpet soloist is Joe Newman, (shown above left) a veteran of big bands going back to his service starting in 1941 with Lionel Hampton. His work as a sidemen in Count Basie’s band began in 1943, and continued off and on for the next 15 years. The tenor saxophone soloist is young (then 25 years old) Frank Foster (at right), who would become a major soloist in the Basie band through the 1950s and beyond. He had just gotten out of the army, and had been recommended to Basie by both popular vocalist Billy Eckstine, who acted as an unofficial patron of the new Basie band, and Ernie Wilkins, another saxophonist in the Basie band then.(5) The best adjectives I can use to define the playing of Newman and Foster in this performance are funky and muscular. These adjectives could also be used to describe the music of the entire Basie band itself, which is exactly what Basie had in mind.
Composed and arranged by Neal Hefti; transcribed from the Clef recording by Sammy Nestico.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on December 13, 1971 in Hollywood, California.
Billy May, directing: John Audino, first trumpet; John Best, Joe Graves and Uan Rasey and Walter “Pete” Candoli, trumpets; Francis “Joe” Howard, Dick Nash, Lloyd Ulyate and Lew McCreary, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Don Raffell tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.
This brilliant performance of “Plymouth Rock,” facilitated by master arranger and conductor Billy May, captures the funky and muscular spirit of the Basie original perfectly, and yet it also has its own slightly different charm. The soloists here are Pete Candoli (shown at left with Billy May) on cup-muted trumpet, and Don Raffell on the edgy tenor saxophone. Others in the band who perform splendidly are pianist Ray Sherman, paying homage to Basie, lead trumpeter John Audino (below right), bassist Morty Corb, and drummer Nick Fatool.
This, like all other the music presented here at swingandbeyond.com, is classic American music that should be performed and enjoyed today. Great music occupies its own present tense.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) This quote from Neal Hefti was taken from The Swing Era …Curtain Call, (1972), notes on the music, 60, by Frank Kappler. Hereafter Kappler.
(2) Basie’s “Old Testament” band was the one he led from the mid-1930s until 1950, when he was forced to disband because of changing market trends in the world of swing. His “New Testament” band was inaugurated in 1952, and continued operation until Basie’s death in 1984.
(3) Count Basie …A Bio-Discography, by Chris Sheridan, (1986), 360.
(4) Kappler, ibid.
(5) Good Morning Blues …The Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray, (1985) 301.
Here is a link to another post here at swingandbeyond.com that contains a concise summary of how Count Basie’s “New Testament” band came into existence in the early 1950s. https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/04/blues-in-hoss-flat-1958-count-basie/
Here is a link to a marvelous Neal Hefti arrangement done for Woody Herman’s band: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/12/10/let-it-snow-1945-woody-herman/
And here is a link to a great performance by a band that in some ways was a descendant of the 1950s Count Basie band, and which was co-led by a Basie alumnus, trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones, featuring a brilliant tenor saxophone solo by Frank Foster: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/05/06/cherry-juice-1976-thad-jonesmel-lewis-jazz-orchestra/
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