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Influential Albums: Kansas City Suite

Throughout the month of September, I want to focus on influential albums in Jazz. Albums that redirected the way musicians created music or even how the general public perceived jazz. These are albums that both serious jazz musicians and casual listeners should have a certain degree of familiarity with. So the first album that I want to highlight is Count Basie’s Kansas City Suite.

The history of the Basie Band is generally divided into two very large periods - The Old Testament Band which is marked by the jam-session influenced head or riff charts often improvised on the band stand, and the New Testament Band which had more developed arrangements. The character of the Basie Band was often influenced by whoever was writing for it whether it was Neal Hefti Atomic Basie), Frank Foster or Freddie Green (April in Paris), Sammy Nestico (Basie Straight Ahead) or, in the case of Kansas City Suite, Benny Carter. To casual listeners Carter might be the most influential jazz musician you have never heard of. As a saxophonist Carter rivaled Johnny Hodges and was an important figure in establishing the sound of the saxophone in jazz. However, he might have created an even greater legacy as a composer.

Central in Carter’s subtle genius is the blues. It was often said of Duke Ellington that he could dress the blues up in its-Sunday best. One of Ellington’s lasting compositional contributions was incorporating blues nuances into tunes that did not follow the form of the blues as well as using the blues form and disguising it. Carter seemed to have the same compositional propensity. His use of blues throughout this large-scale work provides a foundation for the album from which Carter (and Basie) can use as a jumping off point.

The guts of this composition is that it is a ten movement tribute to Kansas City. 1) Vine Street Rumble, 2) Katy-do, 3) Miss Missouri 4) Jackson County Jubilee, 5) Sunset Glow, 6) The Wiggle Walk, 7) Meeting Time 8) Paseo Promenade 9) Blue Jive Five, 10) Rompin at the Reno. Each movement can exist as its own tune and are all masterpieces in and of themselves. The genius here is the preservation of the blues and riff into tunes that fit into a more complex arrangement. Carter sometimes only hints at the blues as in Miss Missouri where to form includes complete phrases of the blues structure, but never in a straight 12-bar form.

If you are new to listening to jazz, this is a great place to start. There is developed arranging, concise soloing, a band that is always swinging, and a certain soulfulness that will keep you coming back for more!

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