Frank Foster (1928-2011)


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Frank Foster, whose pouncing tenor sax and swinging arranging style helped update Count Basie's New Testament Band with a seemingly endless stream of blues surprises from 1953 onward, died on July 26 in Chesapeake, VA. He was 82.

In a band crowded with saxophone talent, Foster and Frank Wes anchored the reed section like a pair of library lions, roaring with a sound so confident, moody and wiley that no other band could duplicate the natural feel or collective phrasing of Basie's orchestra.

Foster's great skill as an arranger rested with his ability to weave a call and response technique throughout entire pieces without ever seeming dull or repetitive. In many cases, Foster's charts would have the saxophones introduce and carry the melody the line, while the trombones muttered or sneezed replies and the trumpets high-fived them for good measure.

The result was a modern conversational arranging technique that emulated banter heard in black barbershops rather than the traditional church. With Foster, this salon was always humming, with roaring horns tempered by suede-smooth reeds and the sound of Basie's “scissors" always snipping away. Foster's arrangements didn't sound complex but they were deceptive, requiring precise and emotional playing that always seemed to be hurtling forward, even when taken at mid-tempo. 

When Foster soloed, he could charge ahead, drag a note or hit a high wail while producing miraculous ideas at high speed. In some ways, his solos sounded like he was making an elaborate sandwich while standing in the aisle of a fast moving train, with a bottle under each arm.

On his arrangement, while the reeds ran their lines, other instruments uttered their own blues statements that were variations on the melody line. What's more, his charts always could be counted on to end with a big build up and a walloping crescendo, producing an emotional thrill for the listener.

Among Foster's many great jazz compositions and arrangements for Basie were Shiny Stockings, Blues in Hoss's Flat, Didn' You and Back to the Apple. Like many of Basie's men, Foster recorded prolifically on the side as a leader and sideman between Basie's big band tours and record dates.

On the list of most underrated tenor saxophonists of the 1950s, Foster is surely at or near the top. Long hidden in the Basie band, Foster was a master craftsman and a buzz of enthusiasm. The genius of his ideas, the force of his phrasing and agility of his eely style can be heard best on his early small-group leadership dates and later leadership recordings in the '60s. On these recordings, you get to hear why he was much more than he seemed—as great as he was in Basie's sax section.

Here are eight of my favorite Frank Foster albums (there are many more)...

  • Frank Foster Quartet (Vogue/1951)
  • Here Comes Frank Foster (Blue Note/1954)
  • George Wallington Showcase (Blue Note/1954)
  • Joe Newman and the Boys in the Band (Storyville/1954)
  • April in Paris (Verve/1955)
  • Jazz by Gee (Riverside/1956)
  • Easin' It (Roulette/1960)
  • Fearless Frank Foster (Prestige/1965)

JazzWax note: Read my post about Brian Grady's saint-like efforts to win back and return Frank Foster's music copyrights to his family. Go here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Frank Foster's Easin' It for Count Basie's band...

Here's Raunchy Rita from Fearless Frank Foster...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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