15 October 2008

Neal Hefti, Basie composer and arranger, dies

Neal Hefti, prominent composer and arranger, has died suddenly at age 85—most probably from a stroke, according to his son.

Hefti is most famous with the public for the composition of the insanely catchy theme to the 1960s Batman TV show.

Now, you would think that I, huge fan of both Batman in general and the old TV show specifically, would now go on and on about that one theme.

But you would be wrong.

I am instead going to talk about another love of mine: swing dancing.

Because Neal Hefti has another great musical legacy as the composer and arranger of Count Basie's most successful album, the 1957 The Atomic Mr. Basie (also called The Atomic Basie, E=MC2, The Atomic Album, or “The one with the mushroom cloud on it”). This is one of the great jazz albums of its decade, and it catapulted the Basie Orchestra back into prominence with the line-up that would be known as the “Second/New Testament” band. (The “Old Testament” band is the 1930s line-up that included Lester Young, and which, for my money, is the greatest swing band in history.)

The smooth but hard swinging sound that Hefti provided Basie’s orchestra would define the band for the remainder of the Count’s life. It’s the quintessence of “cool,” the height of “hip.” I don’t revere this style as much as the easier and blusier swing sound of the Old Testament band, but The Atomic Mr. Basie is a classic and the best post-war work the Count put out.

The three cuts off the all-instrumental album that have become essential parts of the Basie canon are “Li’l Darling,” “Teddy the Toad,” and “Splanky.” “Li’l Darling” is a gorgeous ballad to sip martinis by, and “Teddy the Toad” lays down a heavy swing that makes it the #1 lindy-hopping piece off the album—I’ve danced to it many times. But “Splanky” may be the definitive cut, playful and casual but displaying the band’s tremendous power. Hefti served up just what the Count needed at the time, and the mix of talents produced a timeless album.

Yes, Hefti composed the Batman Theme. It’s a great piece from a great TV show. All the official media obituaries will make sure you know this.

But right now, it’s The Atomic Mr. Basie I’m playing on my iPod in his honor.