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‘Basie is a primary color in this music’: Producer Paul Peck on ‘Late Night Basie’

Count Basie
c/o JazzTimes archive
Count Basie

The list of artists featured on Late Night Basie reads like the lineup of a hip music festival—Talib Kweli, Lettuce, Terence Blanchard, The Soul Rebels, Weedie Braimah—and that’s no coincidence. Paul Peck, the producer of the new Primary Wave Music release, was a mastermind behind the development of holy grail music fests known for their wildly eclectic headliners: Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. This tribute to Count Basie dances from genre to genre, keeping you on your toes like one bouncing from stage to stage. I spoke with Paul about the project, the collaborators, and most importantly Count Basie.

Listen to our conversation, above.


Interview transcript:

Trevor Smith: Why Count Basie and why now?  There are so many tribute records and projects out there, and a lot of them are just reinterpretations of the music using the typical instrumentation.

Paul Peck: I think the opportunity to do something that celebrated Count Basie was really timely. This project was born out of the pandemic and the idea that Basie was a unifier as was his music. He embraced different sounds. He embraced different voices and different personalities. He himself revolutionized popular music and jazz music many times over by bringing new styles, vibes, and energy into the fold. We're in this era where everyone is interacting with the world through screens, so the idea of taking an opportunity to celebrate and explore connection through music and connection of people made sense. To celebrate what brings people together and what unifies them, even when on paper they seem to have a different background, felt really special, timely, and appropriate.

For me, I was really inspired to work with the Count Basie Orchestra. Primary Wave had really thought about this project for a long time and we had done some work together. I was honored that they handpicked me to carry the torch forward and work with the music. It really empowered me to go out to some artists that I find to be incredibly inspiring and give them an opportunity to throw their own flavor into the mix of Count Basie’s music and legacy.

It's a really fascinating project. You pull from so many different corners of the musical spectrum which is no surprise looking at your background. Tell us about your association with Bonnaroo, which in my opinion is the Holy Grail of American music festivals.

Thank you. Yes, the history runs pretty deep. I was part of the group that launched and developed Bonnaroo. I was largely focused on a lot of the creative projects and creative aspects of that event. In my opinion, that creative experience really differentiated Bonnaroo, which was always a big focus for us from the jump.

I was kind of known as the SuperJam producer. I have a reputation for working closely with artists on creative projects. The idea of producing and working closely with artists on these collaborative and once in a lifetime projects like Late Night Basie which mines the territory of shared musical points of inspiration. I’ve always loved doing projects where the circles of different artists overlap, whether that's a big overlap or a small overlap.

When I was a college kid in New Orleans, my first project ever that I produced was a live celebration of the music of Stevie Wonder at Tipitina's, which in my opinion is one of the very best music venues in the country. When I started working with Superfly and we did the first Bonnaroo, I was always the producer of that SuperJam.

As Bonnaroo went on, we kind of grew the SuperJam into a bigger, more prominent part of the Bonnaroo experience, with bigger artists but always this idea of bringing artists together that share points of inspiration. Even though those shared points might not be obvious, it gave us a real opportunity to explore the commonality and create a moment in music history.

Paul Peck, producer of "Late Night Basie"
Paul Peck, producer of "Late Night Basie"

When you're working with these different virtuoso artists or different monumental artists and talent, I start getting really excited about the opportunity to create a moment in history. Whether it's a big moment or a small moment, I want to put my collective stamp with these artists and do something that's never been done before. All of us—whether we are artists, fans, or producers—we come together to create and share this moment together That's never going to happen again.

We get to experience and share it. These are the kind of moments that I feel we treasure forever. That's what music's about and that's what live experiences are about, and that's what festivals are about. That was always my focus at Bonnaroo. I did a bunch of other stuff too, but a lot of the creative aspects of Bonnaroo that I hope made it unique amongst the festival landscape is what I was striving for.

People know of Ellington at Newport. This is like Basie at Bonnaroo. It's just the most incredible wild combinations of musicians. It's almost like a music nerd's dream. You have the jam band Lettuce with Talib Kweli. You have the Soul Rebels and Nicholas Payton and Cimafunk.  You have Will Lee and Ray Angry of the Roots and Jazzmeia Horn.  It’s just this incredible stable of artists that outside of this record, you may never see on the same bill  or on the same stage.

You have this background of creating these really incredible experiences and this album is definitely an experience. Do you have a background in jazz? What's your relationship with the music?

I have always been someone that has felt deeply connected to music. I feel like I experience music in a visceral way. I let it take me for a ride. I take music as an opportunity to connect with different time periods, different feelings, different emotions, different perspectives that I wouldn't have otherwise. It's storytelling. It's the original form of human entertainment but set to music and rhythm and beat. To me, it's transportive. Music is like life in a lot of ways. It's like the first drumbeat is the heartbeat.

I'm not a music player. Instead, I immerse myself deeply in music, and I've always been honored to have these connections. I try to take an artistic approach to my projects and sometimes you have to follow the muse. Something that comes to you in a moment of inspiration, a lightning strike. I'm really attentive to those moments and try to connect with other artists that approach music and art and experience in the same way to create something different and something special.

I was just so honored that Primary Wave entrusted me with this project on the music of Count Basie and to work with the Count Basie Estate to do something special with this music. It’s not something that I take lightly. I've been really lucky to work with a lot of amazing artists and get the opportunity to reimagine a lot of legendary music through a modern lens.

With this project, I took the idea of taking this music and celebrating it from the perspective of all these heroic artists that we have the opportunity to work with. Everyone was just so inspired to be a part of a project that we were approaching in that way. The artists took it very seriously and there was a lot of curation to this too.

Basie was just so influential on a massive cultural scale but because he was in the era before the Miles Davis's, and the Coltranes which is just another era of jazz. It's further back in the history, but it's baked into all that music. But he doesn't necessarily get thought of in the same way. But you turn on any of the late night shows and we have some representation of The Roots, and I've worked with Questlove. The best in these sounds with the collaboration and the interplay between artists and the virtuosity that you hear every night on these shows. It directly links back to Basie.

That was just one of the things he brought to culture. That's why I think of Count Basie as one of the primary colors in American music. He is one of those really core ingredients. So much of the lineage, ancestry and the impact that we still feel today culturally and in music can be traced directly back to Count Basie, his style and character and vibe. It's just so cool to think about.

Late Night Basie (Tribute Album) – “Didn’t You” Lettuce Feat. Talib Kweli (Official Music Video)

I really like how you put it, that Basie is a primary color in this music. You made some really incredible combinations happen on this record. Talk about your sparks of inspiration. There are some that definitely you look at and you go, “Oh yeah, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and keyboardist Ray Angry doing the signature Basie tune, “One O'clock Jump.” Then there's Lettuce, a jam band, and Talib Kweli, a rapper doing “Didn't You?” How did you conceive of that? What was that strike of inspiration to be certain that this makes sense?

I think the process started a little bit with just very initial low pressure conversations with artists that I thought would be monumental to include in the project. Basie embodied another sense of cool confident restraint and virtuosity, more like restrained virtuosity. He wasn't trying to play a million notes. He was trying to play the notes at the right time for maximum impact.

The idea of going to Talib Kweli, who as an artist makes sure that every syllable is engineered for impact. With Lettuce, they're often characterized as a jam band, which is totally fair. But they're also virtuoso, jazz-trained musicians that have deep love and a musicological understanding of music in a deep way that I can't even approach. They've also done hip hop. They've done rock, they're a funk band. They play everything. Every single one of these guys are virtuosic players. My idea was to take what they do and re-explore and reimagine this classic Count Basie song to create a sonic landscape for Talib Kweli to come in and do his thing.

Jeremy Elder

I got with the Lettuce guys and together we thought it would be a dream to have Kweli on the project. We went to him and they generated a rough arrangement. You can tell Adam Deitch, the drummer, went to town with the drum beats. They have two horn players, but there's like eight saxophone parts all layered in. They got the big band sound with Eric “Benny” Bloom on trumpet. They got this really big sound in their guitar player, Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff and their bass player, Erick “Jesus” Coomes. It was just like they created this really big landscape and when we sent it to Kweli, he did just a masterclass on storytelling and lyrical exploration.

With just 16 bars he does a masterful sweep through Basie’s life. The landscape that Basie came up in and some of the societal cultural imbalances and the unfairness and just the challenging landscape that he existed in, that informed his music, that informed his artistry in all aspects.

Kweli explored the paradox and then stapled it back to this idea of “Didn't You?” It was just a masterclass in music-based storytelling, lyricism and rhyming. I think he was really inspired by what Lettuce had put together with the attention to detail and the sonic backdrop that they created that really pushed that song forward and Kweli pushed it forward farther and together.

It was this unexpected otherworldly, next level take on Count Basie’s music and life background, all in one song. Nobody's life can be explained in a couple minutes. It's just one small song in the massive landscape that is Count Basie.

Talib Kweli
c/o the artist
Talib Kweli

Beautifully put. That's one heck of a way to start off a record. The record moves along to “One O'Clock Jump,” with Jazzmeia Horn and Ray Angry. There's definitely some of that classic Basie swing machine sound in that track. Then you make another sonic shift on “Blue and Sentimental,” with Larkin Poe in this sort of Americana vibe featuring another legend of late night, Will Lee. And Sean Pelton is also on there. How did that come about because when I think of Basie that sort of style of music isn't the first that that comes to mind?

We made a conscious effort to be aware of the idea that Basie had all these different eras of his career. He had the Kansas City big band era and all these different shifts informed what he did. It was just so influential on the overall music landscape in pop, jazz, everything. We can still hear that influence on the late night shows. We wanted to have some of the artists that were part of that sound represented on this record. I see Will Lee every year on this incredible benefit of event that my friend Greg Williamson produces here in New York called Love Rocks and Will is the emcee.

Blue & Sentimental

This idea of having Will be a part of this project was a dream idea. He's somebody that really represents and embodies the influence of Basie. He plays everything. He plays it well. He immerses himself in every note. He doesn't overplay. He gets the perfect sounds. I went to Will, because this song started with him, and said, “This is the project that we're doing and we want to re-explore one of these classic songs.” We started talking about what song it could be in a different way with his stamp on it. I said, “I want to think about how we are putting a new chapter that celebrates the history and legacy of Count Basie.”

His idea was to talk to Larkin Poe together came up with the idea of “Blue and Sentimental,” and once that piece was in place, he went to Sean Pelton, the incredible Saturday Night Live drummer. I heard the first scratch recording where Lee was the music director for that song. It was just so beautiful. It was so sparse. It was so touching. It was totally modern. Although it was recorded just yesterday, it sounds like it had been around forever, just like Count Basie. It fit like a puzzle piece within the record. We really arrived at the final product for that song in a very organic, authentic way.

I was over the moon with the original recording and we got a really nice mix done on it. We didn't try to do too much. We just wanted the music to be there as a statement of what we were trying to achieve. I think just like all these songs, that song crystallized something that we wanted to say about Basie and I think we were successful in doing that. What we put together on that song is something really beautiful and it was just sounded effortless and natural.

Count Basie, The Soul Rebels - St. Thomas ft. Nicholas Payton, Cimafunk, Weedie Braimah

It was definitely a very interesting and surprising turn in the record, but it really fits in with the rest of the project. The album moves along to “M Squad” with Terence Blanchard, the trumpet player, and to “Jumping at the Woodside,” another Basie classic with Ray Angry and Jimmy Vivino. Then you go down to New Orleans—well, to the Virgin Islands by way of New Orleans—with Nicholas Payton and the Soul Rebels on “St. Thomas,” and closing the record out with Basie’s signature tune, ”One O'clock Jump.”  It's a really interesting listen. You're going to want to dance. You're going to want to put this on for parties or for just hanging around the house. It's a really great project. Paul, with so much live experience, are you going to take the show on the road? Are we going to be able to see some of these combos in person?

I hope so. Sometimes the stars have to align for these things to take form in a different way. I feel really lucky that we were able to get this document, this testament to the power of an enduring spirit, Count Basie, in recorded fashion. Who knows what will happen in the future? If people connect with this record and it resonates with them the way that it resonates with me and some of the artists and the people that I played for, then I think the opportunity to do that and the excitement around it would be undeniable. We will see if that show happens and if so, I'll be sitting in the fifth row center to get to watch it all.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Trevor has been listening to WBGO for nearly half of his life. The station has remained near and dear from the first time he tuned in via a portable radio on a bus from his home city of Hartford to New York.