Al Basile knows that his musical instrument of choice is not the first one that comes to mind as a sonic conveyor of blues music. Nor, likely, the tenth, or fifteenth.
But the Man with the Cornet says its place and importance in both blues and jazz stretches back a way. A long way.
He adds that some of Bessie Smith’s (aka “The Empress of the Blues”) greatest sides were done in 1925/26 with just her voice and Armstrong’s cornet. “Then the electric guitar came in…and things changed!” he laughs. And no, though the cornet physically resembles another better-known instrument, it is decidedly not a trumpet.
“When you think of blues instruments, even the trumpet is way down the line. And I don’t even play that, even though I learned on it!” Basile offers.
“I like the sound of the cornet better. It’s got a fuller, rounder, mellower sound. And it’s more comfortable to use the plunger mute. Your mouth is not as far from the end of the horn. I think of the instrument as another voice and play it in a vocal manner as opposed to playing a million notes.”
Basile does play plenty of notes—as well as sing all the songs—all of which he wrote, arranged and produced—on his 19th solo studio record, Through with Cool (Sweetspot Records). He calls it the “most completely realized” effort of his career, due in no small part to what he’s learned acting as his own producer for the past few releases.
“I’ve learned a lot putting my own records out after 25 years, so I know better what to do. You always think that your newest record is your best one or where you’re at now,” he says.
“I realized how many decisions a producer makes that affect the overall product. It makes every stage in the project your own. And it reflects what you want the most since you’re the guiding hand for the whole journey.”
The 14 songs on Through with Cool run a gamut of blues styles and topics, all sung in Basile’s distinctive, somewhat quavering voice that adds emotional heft and depth. Its title comes from the last tune on the record, which came to Basile unexpectedly.
“We were just going to do 13 songs like I usually do, but I decided to write one more,” he says.
Not wanting to call the entire band back into the studio (which included Mark Teixteira on drums, Brad Hallen on bass, Bruce Bears on keyboard, and horn players Doug James and Jeff “Doc” Chanonhouse), he just brought back Kid Andersen, the wunderkind guitarist and producer who also played on the entire record. The thesis of the song stuck with him.
“You reach a point where you get older that young people think they’re the ones who have the right to say what is cool. And that used to be us!” he says. “The cool that I’m through with is what they tell you is cool. But I always hoped someone would give me an argument. I am not through with being able to say what is cool!”
Speaking of theses, Basile is no stranger to writing those. In 1970, he became the first student ever at Brown University to receive a Master’s Degree in their Writing Program. His pen (or pencil) has also produced novels, the book for several musicals, and screenplays. Even more prominent is his poetry, which has appeared in several books.
So, the question must be asked: How does Al Basile differentiate what words become lines of poetry, and which become song lyrics?
“When I get an idea, it tells me right at the beginning what it wants to be,” he says. “When it’s a poem, I have to do it with just words. When it’s a song, there’s a rhythm to it, and I hear the groove that has to be put under it, and the words aren’t doing all the work. Then the melody and harmony come in.”
Though he’s been playing for more than 50 years—stretching back to his days in the lineup of Roomful of Blues in the early/mid 1970s—he’s only been singing for 40. And he’s lucky to still be doing it.
Thinking it was due to just the natural progression of age, he pushed more, but things got worse. Eventually, he was told by doctors there was a fungal infection on his larynx. He was treated while recording his last record, B’s Testimony. But he says it was cleared up for good just before he entered the studio for Through with Cool and its “improved considerably.”
Finally, Basile has nothing but praise for his friend and musical compatriot of nearly 50 years, singer/guitarist Duke Robillard. They first met when both were in Roomful of Blues and have appeared in each other’s band and on their records ever since then. Robillard also served as Basile’s record producer for two decades.
“I tried to learn everything I could from him. And not just with the music, but the process and the business part and making the recordings. I don’t tour, so making the record is my performance,” he says.
The current edition of Roomful of Blues contains only one player who was in the lineup with Basile and Robillard (sax player Rich Lataille). But the group has served as an apprenticeship for others who would also go on to successful solo careers, including Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, Curtis Salgado, Greg Piccolo and Al Copley.
A Wikipedia page for the group lists nearly 60 members have passed through he door since their 1967 founding, which means they would need somewhere a bit larger than just a room to host all their alumni.
“We had a 25th anniversary reunion concert that had a big lineup, and that was 25 years ago!” Basile laughs. “Now, you could fill a stadium with everybody who was in that band!”
For more information on Al Basile and Through with Cool, visit AlBasile.com