Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bing 'n' Basie (Daybreak Records, 1972)

Bing Crosby's only full-length collaboration with the Count Basie orchestra has always struck me as a missed opportunity, comparable to Frank Sinatra's 1968 album with Duke Ellington, Francis A. and Edward K. On paper, the idea of pairing Basie's swinging outfit with one of the jazziest voices in pop music was a winner, but the finished LP, though it does have some interesting moments, is far from being one of the most memorable efforts in the discographies of either artist. And the main problem isn't the Sam Nestico arrangements, which are in tune with Basie's typically exciting style of the '60s and '70s, or the orchestra, which sounds as well oiled as ever. The foremost complaint about this album is undoubtedly the repertoire. Do we need a Crosby version of "Gentle on My Mind," "Snowbird," and "Little Green Apples"? Should "Sunrise, Sunset," with its thoughtful lyrics about the circle of life and the passing of time be arranged as a swinger? The answer to both questions is a categorical no, and so the album, as a whole, suffers accordingly.

Bing in 1972
Some critics have pointed out that on some of the tracks Crosby seems to be simply going through the motions, and there doesn't appear to be a real connection between band and vocalist, which is disappointing if we consider who is sitting at the piano and who is standing behind the microphone. This lack of connection between Bing and the band, though, isn't surprising in the light of the fact that Crosby overdubbed his vocals onto tracks that the Basie orchestra had recorded previously, a practice that was never favored by the singer. But on the high points of the record, such as "Hangin' Loose," a swinging number by Nestico with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, "Gonna Build a Mountain," and "Put Your Hand in the Hand," we can get glimpses of what could have been if everyone involved had taken this project more seriously and had devoted more time to preparing for it. Nestico and Mercer also provide an acceptable album closer in "Have a Nice Day," complete with feel-good lyrics that reference Hoagy Carmichael's chestnut "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," and Mercer's liner notes constitute a fitting tribute to Bing and Basie.

Arranger Sam Nestico
In his book The Crosby Years, producer Ken Barnes, who worked with Bing extensively in the 1970s, makes a satisfying, if a little benevolent, critical appraisal of the record: "Of course, it's not Bing's best album, but there is enough good singing and playing to merit a few hearty cheers—and it was certainly better than anything he had done on record for years" (97). Bearing in mind that three years prior to cutting this album Bing had released Hey Jude / Hey Bing, one of his artistically least successful efforts, it's hard not to agree with Barnes that this is an improvement. Yet one certainly wishes that Crosby and Basie had selected songs that suited the style of both artists a little better. The CD reissue from Emarcy Records isn't always easy or cheap to find, but its sound is good, and even though it doesn't include any personnel information or any new liner notes, it does reprint the brief essay by Mercer that appeared on the original sleeve. Also, an outtake from the session, "If I Had a Hammer," remains incomprehensibly unissued and definitely would have made for a fine bonus track.

TRACK LIST: Gentle on My Mind / Everything Is Beautiful / Gonna Build a Mountain / Sunrise, Sunset / Hangin' Loose / All His Children / Put Your Hand in the Hand / Snowbird / Little Green Apples / Sugar, Don't You Know / Have a Nice Day.

Back sleeve of original album, with pictures and Johnny Mercer's liner notes

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