The Anderson twins, Peter and Will, are back with a new show at 59E59 Theaters, where two Decembers ago they brought Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz, a revue about the attraction of Paris for jazz musicians; that show earned them a Drama Desk nomination. Their new creation, The Count Meets the Duke, has a narrower focus—the lives of jazz titans Count Basie and Duke Ellington—and it is more of a straightforward tribute. Created and directed by the brothers, it’s not only an evening of superb musicianship but as informative as their earlier works, which include The Anderson Twins Play the Fabulous Dorseys.
Subtitled The Anderson Twins Play Basie and Ellington, the show focuses on Count Basie in the first half, with Will narrating; Pete takes up the honors later for Ellington. There’s some crossover—both jazzmen had great respect for each other and even played together. The twins have been typically rigorous in digging up rare interviews and stills to be projected behind them, so there’s a clip of Basie praising Ellington, for instance. Also hanging on the walls are several drawings of the subjects by the late New York Times illustrator Al Hirschfeld, himself a jazz enthusiast.
As hosts, Will, who plays alto saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and Pete, who is on tenor saxophone and clarinet, lack the polish of trained actors, but their unassuming charm hits the right note for the intimate setting, and their passion is infectious. Even if one isn’t a jazz aficionado, their recitation of players whose names mean nothing to a listener makes it clear that the people who own the names are important in their field. Although, as Will notes, Thelonius Monk once said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” the brothers manage to impart a good deal of fascinating information and draw one into their musical orbit.
There are plenty of jazz milestones mentioned: Duke Ellington’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, when tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves played 27 choruses (six or seven was the usual number), a woman jumped on stage and discarded an article of clothing for each chorus, and a riot nearly ensued. There’s the story of Basie’s upbringing: born in Red Bank, N.J., he played piano for silent films and in bars as a teenager. Later he took to the road, finding musical work with traveling burlesque shows. Finding himself in Kansas City in the 1930s—a mecca for the best jazz in the country—he buffaloed bandleader Bennie Moten, a pianist, into believing that in New York it was all the rage to have a second piano, and he got himself hired for the job.
There are film clips such as Count Basie’s bizarre appearance with his band in the middle of the desert in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), and Ellington alongside James Stewart in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, as well as his guest shot on What’s My Line in 1953. Or the Duke waxing humorous on rhythm: “One never snaps one’s fingers on the beat—it’s considered aggressive.” There’s even a rare clip of Billy Strayhorn at the piano; his orchestrations greatly enhanced Ellington’s compositions.
All that, however, is just the background to the main event: the playing. The show features Jeb Patton on a Steinway, Clovis Nicolas on bass and Phil Stewart on drums. Whether on swing numbers like Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe,” written for Basie, and Ellington’s “Main Stem,” or on slower, more languid ones like Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin,” written for Basie, and Ellington’s “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” an excerpt of a 1957 album in which the Duke focused on Shakespeare’s plays, the five-man combo is terrific. Along the way, every performer gets to shine. Pete has a solo on the clarinet in “Ad Lib on Nippon,” in which Patton has a fine solo too. Patton also performs a piano version of “Corner Pocket,” written by Freddie Green for Basie’s orchestra. There’s even a holiday excerpt from Ellington and Strayhorn’s version of Nutcracker Suite called “Sugar Rum Cherry”—a jazzy version of you-know-what.
If you’re looking for high-quality musicianship skillfully interwoven with intellectual enlightenment for the holidays, then bop over to The Count Meets the Duke.
The jazz revue The Count Meets the Duke runs through Jan. 3 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St. between Park and Madison Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 through Dec. 20; $35 starting on Dec. 22. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, and at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinee performances are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit 59E59.org.