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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
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34 Li'l Darlin'
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26 November2019 
Li’l Darlin’

Mike Westbrook

No. 34

One of my earliest experiences of hearing American jazz live was a concert by the Count Basie Orchestra in Plymouth in the late 1950s. This was the time when I was just starting up my own band at the Art School. It was the period when the Basie band was performing all those classics from the Atomic Mr Basie album, composed and arranged by Neal Hefti. Despite a dreadful album cover, depicting the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb, this was an exuberant, life-affirming record. It celebrated the Basie band as a state-of-the-art swing machine, and Neal Hefti knew just how to deploy it. His exquisitely crafted charts became stock arrangements played by pretty well every big band in the land. Over the years the style tended to become diluted and rather formulaic - something that Ellingtons never did - and to lose its ability to surprise. So I am very lucky to have heard the original from the horses mouth.

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Count Basie

Count Basie

The concert was in a big Odeon cinema - in those days cinemas often had jazz concerts on Sundays. From my vantage point on the balcony I could see suitcases and clothes scattered behind the rostra at the rear of the stage. The band had obviously got onstage in a hurry.

The brilliance of the ensemble work was sheer perfection and all the soloists shone. But looking back, its not the dazzling virtuosity of the band in full flight that lingers most in the memory, but the simplest piece in the pad and one that required no big band pyrotechnics,- Lil Darlin. To this day I have never seen a band as relaxed on stage as the Basie band during that number. I remember the trumpets at the back of the band, slumped in their seats, their trumpets pointing in four different directions. No-one appeared to make the slightest effort, yet there was a feeling of empathy, of total immersion in the collective sound. And what came out was perfection. The mellow sound of unison trumpets with bucket mutes riding a mass of trombones and saxes, full of delicious inside voicings. Add to that a harmon-muted trumpet solo and the Counts piano licks and the result was spellbinding.

I did my own arrangement of Lil Darlin in the 90s for a Christmas concert in Blackheath and since then Ive  brought it out every now and then, especially at Christmas time. We hope that we do it justice.

Mike Westbrook

Mike Westbrook and The Uncommon Orchestra present A COOL CHRISTMAS at The Grand Hotel  in Torquay on Sunday 15th December

See Diary for details

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