Every time the Anderson twins (I am still leery about telling them apart) play with their band, I know I will be entertained and enlightened. After seeing their production currently at 59E59 Theaters, The Count Meets The Duke: The Andersons Play Basie and Ellington, which they’ve created and directed, I’ve become a loyal fan. Consummate performers and knowledgeable raconteurs about historical American music artists, they have distinguished themselves with this production. As musicians, they know one of the finest ways for a musician to evolve his own craft is to study the masters. In that discovery comes their own evolution toward greatness.
For me the Andersons exemplified these impulses in the production of Le Jazz Hot which ran in December 2013, also at 59E59 Theaters. It was an amazing production about how the French “saved Jazz” for this country. With The Count Meets The Duke, they have proven themselves pros of perspective, able to spin the past in the centrifuge of the fresh, youthful and modern. What remains is quintessentially their own as it merges with the irrepressible spirit of the music greats they venerate. The results is a flawless and fun production that makes for superb entertainment.
The Andersons (Will on alto sax, flute and clarinet and Peter on tenor sax and clarinet) and band members Jeb Patton (piano), Neal Miner (bass), and Phil Stewart (drums) showcase some of the best of Count Basie and Duke Ellington with signature numbers like Basie’s “Tickle Toe,” “Cute,” and “Midgets” and Ellington’s “Main Stem,” “Blood Count,” and “Ad Lib on Nippon.” Interspersed among the musical numbers, Will and Peter discuss Basie’s and Ellington’s backstories, their references to one another, and the only time the two pianists, composers and bandleaders joined their 17-piece orchestras, to record First Time! The Count Meets The Duke released by Columbia in 1961. That album inspired the Andersons to create this production, whose title they drew from the album.
The Anderson brothers fill in by degrees the stories of Basie’s and Ellington’s lives, influences and impact. They never belabor the audience with an overabundance of details. They have honed the information well, make their selection of jazz numbers the central focus and peppering the arc of Basie’s and Ellington’s careers with humorous stories and anecdotes some of which are probably new to a budding jazz aficionado’s ears.
Supplementing these accounts with black and white film clips and photos, the Andersons generate a new appreciation for these men and their place in music. The visual chronicle underscores U.S. history in all its glory and racial infamy and reminds us that in music and sports, African Americans could carve out cross-cultural notoriety, identity and success. Subtly the Andersons’ tribute to these two jazz geniuses reveals how much Basie and Ellington must have had to overcome in their own inner attitudes and personal lives to achieve the prestige and acclaim they earned.
Particular highlights of the production include stories of how Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands competed against each other on the ballfield. Many of the bands had their own baseball teams and the rivalries were acute. Neither of their teams was very good, but the change-up from music provided an outlet from the stress of touring and performing.
Most of the video clips are excellent. One black and white clip shows Count Basie accompanying Frank Sinatra (who turned 100 on December 12) singing “Pennies From Heaven.” Another is of Count Basie describing Duke Ellington with effusive wit and smiles.
Standouts among the photos include one of Ellington meeting the young Queen Elizabeth II, a meeting that inspired Ellington to compose “The Queen’s Suite.” First played in 1958, it was placed in the Smithsonian after Ellington’s death and not played again until it was finally released for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Peter Anderson on solo clarinet plays “Single Petal of A Rose” from “The Queen’s Suite,” so we get to hear a rare, unique and lovely piece showing Ellington’s brilliance.
Another great addition to the production is the set: bare black walls of a right angle covered with 13 or so of Al Hirschfeld’s cartoon sketches of the jazz masters at play. These are wonderful. Hirschfeld captures the unmistakable image of the Count at the piano and emphasizes his smiling face and his hands dancing on the keyboard. The sketches of Duke reflect the musician’s suave, smooth singularity in flowing lines. The Andersons discuss how Hirschfeld was a fan and give a brief synopsis of his work at The New York Times. I found myself smiling as I listened to each performer’s solo riffs, nodding my head, blood pulsing to the rhythms as I silently thanked the two jazz giants who must have appreciated their visual immortality in Hirschfeld’s deft, spare strokes.
The production would have gone on another half hour or more if I could have willed it, but all good things come to an end. I loved every soul-pounding minute of the band’s playing. And I’m pleased that I’ve become a bit smarter about Count Basie and Duke Ellington and can relate a few stories to others. I am avidly looking forward to the next time the Andersons create such a production, entertaining and enlightening us about our own American history musicbook.
If you love jazz, get down to 59E59 Theaters and see the Andersons, Stewart, Miner/Nicolas and Patton show off the tunes of these American jazz greats whose mighty influence has been integral to the evolving jazz scene. The production runs until January 3. It would be extended if I had my way.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00WJQ7E0M][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00B27WRZG][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00000IMYM] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B001BHTNB8][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B003W77SDK]