Al Basile, something like 50s counterspy Herb Philbrick, has led three lives: as a singer/songwriter/cornetist in blues and jazz circles; as a poet/playwright/fiction writer; and until a few years ago, as a teacher/coach at an independent school in Rhode Island. 2012 marked a watershed year for him, with the publication of a career retrospective book of poetry, A Lit House, and with the release of his ninth Duke Robillard-produced solo CD At Home Next Door, which is itself both a retrospective of his blues songwriting and performing during his 14 year tenure on his own Sweetspot Records label (which proves that he's always been an elite talent, if not always well-known), and a collection of new songs in a 60's Memphis style (which prove that he's better than ever). He has always enjoyed a unique relationship with his boss from his first band Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard, who has produced and played on every one of his releases, and he continues to draw from the best blues players from the Northeast, including many Roomful alumni. At Home Next Door also has a guest appearance by his old friend and Providence musical compatriot, jazz great Scott Hamilton, on tenor sax.
Al started out as a writer. He was the first to get a master's degree from Brown University's Creative Writing program; he also wrote musicals as an undergraduate. Meeting Duke Robillard in 1969 changed his artistic direction for life. He began his performing career in 1973, hired by Duke as the first trumpet player for Rhode Island's premier jump band Roomful of Blues, and played with such blues and jazz greats as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Red Prysock, Helen Humes, Joe Turner, and Johnny Shines. Leaving in 1975 to devote himself to teaching, singing, and songwriting, he was reunited with Robillard, Roomful's founder, in the late eighties. In the two decades-plus which have followed, he has written songs with and for Duke which are on ten Duke Robillard CDs, and played on ten as well, including the Grammy nominated Guitar Groove-a-Rama and Stomp! The Blues Tonight. Songs co-written by Al and Duke have been used in films and on television's Homicide: Life on the Streets. Al also had a song of his on the Grammy-nominated Ruth Brown CD R&B=Ruth Brown in 1997, and he appears as a band member in Duke's concert DVD Duke Robillard and Friends Live at the Blackstone River Theater.
Al started his record company Sweetspot Records in 1998 while he was still working full time as a teacher, because he had so many songs which sprang from different parts of the American roots landscape that no one artist would identify with them all – except the one who had created them. Over his first eight releases he covered many blues, jazz, and roots styles, and featured guest artists such as lifetime Grammy recipients the Blind Boys of Alabama, Blues harp greats Jerry Portnoy and Sugar Ray Norcia, keyboardist Bruce Katz, sax phenom Sax Gordon, and many Roomful horn mates like Doug James, Carl Querfurth, and Rich Lataille along with Duke and his band. Together they brought every song across Al's broad range of influences to idiomatic life.
Al has focused more on reaching the public since leaving teaching, and his last four CDs placed in the top 15 on the Living Blues airplay charts in the months of their release. He has been nominated for two Blues Music Awards as best horn player in 2010 and 2012.
Al's reviews consistently comment on his strengths as a writer. He uses his lyrics to tell stories with universal appeal, bringing to the task his skills as a published poet but keeping the words strong, simple, and evocative. His ease and strength as a vocal storyteller continues to grow with each release, and his cornet playing is rich, nuanced, and succinct, informed by jazz but instantly communicative as an alternate voice. His songs are all lyrically and melodically deep, and the characters and situations are like compressed theater.
While Al kept his various artistic talents alive and growing throughout his 25 year teaching career, he has moved into the public eye quickly since leaving that profession. He's a model for his generation in showing how to have sequential careers, remain independent, and produce work that is both accessible and thought-provoking. His music sounds good – you can put it on while making dinner – but if you have time for a careful listen – the deeper you look, the more you'll find.
1. Frank Sinatra - I began to learn about phrasing for the meaning of a lyric from him. Breath support, notebending for the style. Unshakeable self-confidence.
2. Louis Armstrong - The voice as horn - the horn as voice. Improvising rhythm in your phrasing, and sincerity.
3. Nat Cole - Enunciation and smoothness.
4. Sam Cooke - Back of the throat melisma. Refined joy.
5. Ray Charles - Manipulating coloration with the inside surface of the lips. Controlling screamin' in the lower throat without hurting myself. Passion.
6. Marvin Gaye - Changing pressure within a phrase. Hard rhythmic phrasing, improvising rhythmic phrasing.
7. Smokey Robinson - Breath control in light applications. Falsetto high up in the head
8. Muddy Waters - Force. Blues notebending and alternate pronunciation for personal authenticity.
9. Little Willie John - Emotional tension from singing up near the break. Intensity. Expressing pain.
10. Claude Jeter - Different kinds of falsetto from full to light and ecstatic. Changing timbres and volume levels within a phrase.
11. Julius Cheeks - Roughening up the voice in the bottom of the throat (“Squalling”) for a raspy, explosive effect.
12. Stevie Wonder - Modern very tight ornamentation, well back in the throat but controlled behind the lips. Powerful breath control.
1. Wild Man Blues (1927) - in the stop time passages, he carries the time deeper.
2. Potato Head Blues (1927) - again, you can feel the time stronger when the rhythm section has stopped.
3. Weather Bird (1928) - duet with Hines allows us to feel the time in a more modern way, with out the rest of the rhythm to date it.
4. Blue Again (1931) - he thinks rhythm first - not harmony, not even melody: rhythm.
5. When Your Lover Has Gone (1931) - declarative opening of solo and where he takes it.
6. Stardust (1931 - issued take) - using the saxes to accent the one and the three leads to majestic rolling phrases.
7. Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long (1932) - who wrote that the solo starts like Beethoven? This one's deep.
8. Laughin' Louie (1933 - issued take) - sublimity in the playing, and a life-force which laughs in the face of doom.
9. Song of the Vipers (1934) - otherworldly glissandos.
10. Swing That Music (1936 - not the later one) - in the last part of the solo, on the repeated notes, rhythm so deep I can barely listen to it, much less play it.
11. My Walking Stick (1938) - he scales back his sound to blend with the vocal horn imitations of the Mills Brothers. Vocal horns, indeed!
12. Snafu (1946) - first cut of his with Hodges and Ellington that I encountered. Tone and tone.
13. Raymond St. Blues (1946) - hard to find (recorded for the film "New Orleans", but unused, and issued on Definitive in 1999) - he changes his tone and growls the beginning of this old NO tune. It lasts less than a minute, but there's a phrase where the growl makes him sound like Sidney Bechet. If you know their history, it's delicious.
14. Short But Sweet (1966) - pure distillation of sound and economy of means makes this my favorite example of his poignant late style.
These are deep scratches on the surface, but only scratches: one lifetime is not enough to listen to Louis. You may begin...
Playing with the band
1. You Don't Know Me (Eddy Arnold) - favorite performance: Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I like songs that tell a story and offer a dramatic situation succinctly. Don't overlook country songs because you don't care for the style - there are great songs in every style.
2. I Didn't Know About You (Duke Ellington/Bob Russell) - favorite performance: Sylvia Syms, Lovingly. This was written as an instrumental first, like so many of Duke's sings. Unlike many of them, it was given a lyric worthy of the music later.
3. All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan) - favorite performance: Dylan, John Wesley Harding. I know the Hendrix version is more overtly dramatic, but the use of a series of images to create a mood and suggest a story was done better in Dylan's understated version, I think, and that's where I learned that technical approach to a lyric which I employed on The Change is On, found on Duke Robillard's Temptation.
4. Feel Like Going Home (Charlie Rich) - favorite performance: Charlie Rich demo version, Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich. The song gets stronger the more you take away from the arrangement; Rich's demo is the most stripped down and affecting. I don't really identify with the emotional stance, but I like songs of all stances if they express their point of view powerfully enough.
5. That's Where It's At (Sam Cooke) - favorite performance: Sam Cooke, A Man And His Music. This creates the mood and places you there in the room with it. "...just stay one minute more..." says it all.
6. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man (Dan Penn) - favorite performance: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul. This lyric says something that needs saying. I'm not sure why more lyrics don't.
7. It Never Entered My Mind (Rodgers/Hart) - favorite performance: Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. I like lyrics which capture moments of realization. The tone is exquisitely handled here as well.
8. Here, There, and Everywhere (Lennon/McCartney) - favorite performance: the Beatles, Revolver. It's very singeable - a pure melody which carries the mood. A little like Coconut Grove by John Sebastian in that respect.
9. Morgengruss (Schubert) - favorite performance: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Die Schoene Muellerin. I like singing this one. Schubert's melodies seem to have sprung from the ground, and the dramatic situation is expressed nicely in the middle.
10. Choosey Beggar (Smokey Robinson) - favorite performance: Smokey and the Miracles, Anthology. Poetry at eye level.
What to do about Chuck Berry, Ray Davies, Percy Mayfield, Boudleaux Bryant, Harold Arlen, and a host of others not represented here? Stay tuned: blues songs will be treated separately next.
1. Louis Armstrong - incomparably better than anyone else, in every respect
2. Roy Eldridge - powerfully emotional; his mouthpiece made high notes easy but mid range and below almost impossible to play (I tried once)
3. Cootie Williams - my plunger mentor; stark power and eloquence
4. Ruby Braff - lyrical and ornate; uses the full range of the instrument
5. Shorty Baker - criminally undervalued; unique tone and taste
6. Clark Terry - inimitable technique and ebullience
7. Ray Nance - sounds easy to duplicate; go try it
8. Miles Davis - personal, vocal sound; I prefer the pre-fusion Miles
9. Bobby Hackett - small but sumptuous tone; a lyrical adaptation of Pops
10. a three-way tie among Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, and Lips Page
If Bix, Bunny, Fats, and Clifford had lived, this list would look a little different; but not at the top.