With all of the swinging going on in this DVD, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wishes someone had swung a whisk broom over this transfer.
"If I could be with you one hour tonight…If I was free to do the things I like…"—from "If I Could Be With You"
Some musicians are so captivating that their sheer presence is enough to command our attention. Their music becomes legend; the performances retain their appeal through decades of musical upheaval and changing styles. Count Basie is one such artist. Count Basie: Swinging at His Best presents a collection of live Count Basie performances.
I mean "presents" in the loosest sense of the word. The DVD cover shows a green-hued Count Basie with a neon green title in a font reminiscent of Star Trek control panels. A bold disclaimer at the bottom states "This production is not authorized or endorsed by the estate of Count Basie." At best, the DVD package is an off-putting stylistic disconnect with the content. It suggests that the footage will be untouched clips from the public domain. At worst, the disclaimer suggests that the material in the DVD is somehow stepping on the toes of the Estate of Count Basie.
The content seems to support these suspicions. Name a technical flaw, it is probably on this DVD. There are varying levels of expectation for footage this old. If you're talking Citizen Kane, you expect the studio to pour millions of dollars into the restoration and the studio expects to recoup that money in DVD sales. Archival performances of big band music don't have as wide an audience, so we expect less of the video.
Nonetheless, the video quality on Count Basie: Swinging at His Best is abysmal. There are certain sections of the DVD where it is barely apparent that a human being is in frame. The constant drizzle of grain, scratches, dirt, and other physical defects is ironically marred by bad haloing (and what may be digital noise). There has been no apparent effort to make this footage watchable. The clearest visual element is a "COUNT BASIE: SWINGING AT HIS BEST" watermark that shows up in random places several times during each song, as though music video pirates are going to steal these clips. The clips are awkwardly cut into "music videos" by artificial fades, with the song title, artist, and other info at the beginning.
Video is not the most important element in a musical performance, but sadly, the audio quality is not much better than the video. The audio has two modes: booming, muddy, and dull, or harsh, brassy, and hissy. The muddy songs sound like we're hearing them through a thick layer of petroleum jelly (one that is waving back and forth around our ears). The brassy songs sound like a sharp wind forcing its way through a screen door. Pops, clicks, hisses, stutters, high-frequency bloom, and low-frequency boom constantly take us out of the music. The biggest flaws come during the opening "Rhythm Tune," which has noticeable splices that cause the music to stutter. Yes, the footage is old, and restoration takes money, but this is a musical performance of a treasured artist.
Now that I've properly dashed your expectations for the quality, allow me to backtrack a bit. Despite all of the flaws, Count Basie's grace, energy, and sense of fun come through clearly. The disc kicks off with a brief, jaunty number that gets your toes to tapping. We stay on this same set through "Basie's Boogie" and "Swingin' the Blues." "Basie's Boogie" highlights Basie's ivory-tickling skills; his fingers seem to skip lightly over the keys, as though he were dusting away a fine layer of lint. "Swingin' the Blues" emphasizes the big band sound that Basie is noted for, with a steady stream of competing, but harmonious, solos.
We then leave the public spectacle of the stage and meet the Count on a more intimate sound stage. There he coaxes a "Conversation" from a series of other musicians. His sense of fun and understated (yet firm) direction manifest through informative head tilts and wry glances. Unfortunately, the sound quality is marred by a loud background hiss. We revisit the same set (and the same hiss) in "Basie's Other Boogie," which is longer and jazzier than some of the previous numbers.
"If I Could Be With You" takes us to an even more intimate place—and introduces a foreground hiss. That is to say, the hiss becomes louder than the actual music, so no matter what volume you choose, there's no way to escape it. That is a shame, because Helen Humes sings the hell out of this song. Her face draws you in and her voice speaks of sinful delights. You don't have to work too hard to uncover the hidden meaning in her words, and oh mama, I'm comin' back for some of that.
Quiet time is over, and we transition into one of Count Basie's most famous tunes. "One O'Clock Jump" is on National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the twentieth century. There is a fantastic biography of Count Basie on the PBS website (linked in the sidebar) with a sound clip from NPR Jazz that discusses this song in detail. Honestly, I wasn't as taken with this song as I was with others on this disc, but then again it isn't presented in a flattering format.
The next guest vocalist, Billie Holiday, sings us through "God Bless the Child" and "Now Baby or Never." I desperately wanted to give these two numbers the rapt attention they deserve, but the sound quality takes another backward step, and the video quality follows right along. Contrast tanks while detail fades and grain takes over. It is a gray curtain of static with vague dark shapes moving in the background. I'm sure Billie Holiday is a fine singer, and maybe there are decent recordings of her somewhere.
What have we here? An anomaly. "Please Take Me Back" grants respite to our weary ears and eyes, looking watchable and sounding decent. The bonus songs on the disc come from the Ralph Gleason Jazz Casual Show, and perhaps this number does as well. It has a studio quality, with different sets, editing cuts, camera pans, and other bits of polish. In fact, "Please Take Me Back" is eerily reminiscent of an early MTV music video. Jimmy Rushing calls on a woman so fine, she makes my heart ache. (All she does is smile and cuddle Jimmy, but she is stellar eye candy.) Rushing saunters through the song with gusto, the living embodiment of blues music. I won't go so far as to say this one clip is worth the purchase price of the disc, but it is the catchiest, most polished of the lot.
Ethel Waters then joins us for "Quicksand," which I found forgettable in comparison to the other memorable songs on this disc. The next three songs recover, with a clearer focus on Count Basie's piano skills. The big band is gone, and in its place are demure studio musicians and Count Basie at the keys. This set is a treat for jazz enthusiasts; it is reasonably clean, and Count Basie's facility with the keyboard shines. He goes from graceful energy to an apologetic, whispered disruption of the keyboard's peace. These songs provide a welcome counterpoint to the brassy energy of the big band swing numbers.
The brassy energy returns for a final gasp, taking us back to the opening set's poor visual quality and questionable sound. It is a rousing finale to the disc—or it would have been, had the whole number played out. But the disc ends awkwardly, with the song cutting out abruptly and the opening menu popping up.
Basie's mentor Fats Waller presents us with a trio of staged numbers from the Ralph Gleason Jazz Casual Show: "Your Feets Too Big," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Honey Suckle Rose." Waller plays up the camp factor much more than Basie; his act takes on a vaudeville flavor that suffers in comparison to Basie's class. Nevertheless, Waller's sideshow attitude masks a great musical effort that has undeniable ties to Basie's presentation.
1. Rhythm Tune
Sheer variety and the inherent approachability of Basie's music help this DVD's case. In particular, chapters 11 and 13-14 put Basie's sound on decent display. Unfortunately, these songs are not enough to overcome the wretched technical quality of the disc, which merely gives us a hint of how great Count Basie recordings might sound. For comparison, the 64.7 Kbps audio stream from the PBS website sounds much clearer and cleaner than anything on this DVD. With regret, I must pronounce this title guilty; this is not Count Basie swinging at his best.
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