Friday, April 14, 2017

Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, 1961

One of the smoothest and most successful jazz and pop vocalists of the 1940s and '50s, Billy Eckstine was also one of the most forward-thinking, as we can infer from the lineup of his famous orchestra of the mid-'40s, which included soon-to-be famous jazzmen such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey, among many others. Not only was Mr. B a fantastic vocalist, but he was also an intelligent man who made his mark socially and politically. As critic Will Friedwald has noted in his Biographical Guide, "before Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole dared sing anything other than the blues or novelties, Billy Eckstine was among the first to show the world that the black man could be intellectual, passionate, sensitive, literate, articulate, proud—and profound." Indeed, Eckstine was all this, but most of all, he was profound: his voice was rich and deep, and he imbued everything he sang with a depth that very few singers in jazz, pop, or any other style could even dream of achieving. He felt at ease singing different types of music, but he excelled at the art of the ballad, particularly that of the intimate, emotionally deep variety, like his big 1947 hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours." No wonder that his female fans—black and white alike, in a time of open segregation, no less—went wild over him. He was simply just that deep, that emotional, that attractive.

Producer and arranger Quincy Jones.

By October 1961, when he was recorded live at Basin Street East in New York City, Eckstine's hit-making days were pretty much over, yet he was still at his peak vocally. For this engagement at the legendary club, Mr. B assembled a fantastic orchestra including great musicians such as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Melba Liston, and altoist Phil Woods. With Quincy Jones at the helm and taking care of the arrangements, the results couldn't be anything but outstanding. The album kicks off with a spirited R&B-inflected reading of "All Right, Okay, You Win" that makes it instantly clear that Eckstine still has it and that the listener is in for a real treat. After jokingly describing himself as "the Fabian of the forties," Eckstine goes into a lovely medley of three ballads ("I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am," and the classic "Everything I Have Is Yours") that show his mastery of the romantic ballad to great effect. Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" is infused with a tasteful Latin beat that suits Eckstine's style perfectly. Next comes one of the highlights of the album—a medley of four Duke Ellington standards that work very well together and that Mr. B performs effortlessly, apparently in front of Ellington himself, who was in the audience on that particular night. Eckstine then moves into more contemporary territory, and his interpretation of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" is surprising for its gospel undertones. The album closes with a fun, swinging rendition of the Con Conrad novelty "Ma (She's Making Eyes at Me)" that once again indicates Eckstine's versatility. Released on Mercury as Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, this is one of Eckstine's best live records, and my only complaint about it is that it's entirely too short.

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