Having weathered the same upheavals in the music business that knocked many other bandleaders right off of the scene, William "Count" Basie calmly persevered by recording with septets and octets, occasionally finding it possible to assemble the 16-piece orchestra that he loved to lead. The scaled-down ensembles heard on this disc were fortified with brilliant young players who were capable of swinging hard while expanding the music in new and exciting directions. The eight-piece group that recorded in February of 1950 -- this was Basie's last session for Victor -- served up a perfect blend of established styles and innovative ideas. "If You See My Baby" is a swinging recipe for instant gratification. "Sweets," arranged by Buck Clayton, features exceptionally fine muted trumpeting by Harry Edison. What really makes this session valuable, though, is the presence of tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. His best moments come during "Rat Race," an upbeat cruise with a very modern introduction. After a powerful solo, he engages in a bit of tenor jousting with Georgie Auld. The anomaly here is "Solid As a Rock," a weird attempt at a love song sung by the Deep River Boys, a holdover vocal group from the early '40s. With "Neal's Deal," listeners officially encounter the Basie sound of the 1950s. This has a lot to do with Neal Hefti, whose spiffy melodies and clear, clean arrangements practically defined the new style that would become closely associated with the Basie bands. And it's got everything to do with the individuals who came in to work for the Count: Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Serge Chaloff, Charlie Rouse and Buddy Rich, who comes across as emphatic but not too showy. This was a great little band. "The Golden Bullet" is a smoker. The instrumental version of "You're My Baby, You" sounds a lot like something out of Boyd Raeburn's book. Clark Terry does a fine job of singing smoothly on a second take, coolly pronouncing a line like "I could be your candied yam" as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say. In November of 1950 the plot thickened wonderfully when Wardell Gray joined the band, engaging in a lively chase with Terry and DeFranco on "Song of the Islands." Gray sounds magnificent on "I'm Confessin'" and "I'll Remember April." "These Foolish Things" is really gorgeous. As for the vintage material, "One O'Clock Jump" and "I Ain't Got Nobody" came out sounding stronger and better than ever. "Tootsie" is a wild offshoot of a much older idea, directly traceable back to the old "Boogie Woogie" record of 1936. In April of 1951, Basie was once again able to make records with a huge ensemble, coordinated by brassy arrangements. "Howzit" and "Nails" have that punchy quality associated with Buster Harding. "Little Pony," composed and arranged by Hefti, is deservedly famous as a blazing feature for the brilliantly inventive Gray. Tacked on to the end of this disc is a previously overlooked side from 1942, with Jimmy Rushing cutting in on Cab Calloway's rhetorical game of "spin the vernacular."
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