By Matt Micucci
The collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in the sixties heavily marked both men’s careers.
Count Basie was an American jazz pianist and bandleader, who introduced several generations to the Big Band sound. He left behind a hugely influential catalog of works, and was praised for a unique style that he probably described best himself in his famous quote “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.”
Sinatra, on his part, had actually released an album in 1954 entitled Easy Swings!, and in the record one can notice him and his long time collaborator Nelson Riddle reference Basie’s style musically and lyrically. Four years later, in the titular track of another Capitol album Come Dance With Me!, Sinatra would pay tribute once again to one of his favourite bandleaders with the quote “hey there, Cutes, put on your Basie boots!”
In 1960, Sinatra had finally had it with the lack of artistic freedom given to him by Capitol records and took matters into his own hands by starting his own record label, which he called Reprise. Along with earning him the nickname of Chairman of the Board, which he, by the way, hated, this landmark event in his career allowed him to carry on some personal pet projects that he had always wanted to make. One of these was, at last, a collaboration with his idol Count Basie.
The two first collaborated on the studio album Sinatra-Basie, and one can sense the excitement around the project by the album’s subtitle An Historic Musical First. Basie and His Orchestra provide Sinatra with a loose sound that allow him to deliver some of the most rhythmically free vocals of his whole career. The record was commercially successful, and prompted them to make another the following year.
It May as Well Be Swing is even more impressive because it is less restrained and more energetic. Much of the credit does not only go to the flexibility of the band, nor the addition of strings in the orchestra this time around, but also to the conduction and arrangements by Quincy Jones, that add more energy to the sophisticated restraint of the orchestration, which then often erupts in its instrumental bridges. This is already represented in the album’s opening track Fly Me to the Moon, forever associated with the Apollo missions of the time, and one of most famous tracks by the crooner.
It is evident from these albums that Sinatra was very respectful of musicians, and allows them a chance to shine even more prominently than they had in other albums. It is also clear that this was, by all accounts a full collaboration that shaped both the careers of Sinatra and Basie. The sound that was generated out of these albums is one instantly associated with Sinatra’s style of swing in the sixties. A further proof came in 1966, when Sinatra at the Sands, the first commercially released live album by Sinatra, was released and has since been described as the ultimate portrait of Frank Sinatra in the sicties.
Sinatra simply loved to play with Count Basie and His Orchestra, and did so live for many years, including an appearance together at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Count Basie would also benefit from his association with the ever popular Sinatra, and continue to enjoy a reputation with his orchestra as one of the greatest Big Bands on the planet, right up to his death in 1984.