The Real Swing: Count Basie Orchestra
Swing music experienced a bit of a renaissance over the last couple years, a craze that spawned a group of new young sings groups energetic and somewhat fun, but marginally talented and extremely unauthentic. But the real thing came to Fonda-Fultonville High School in Fonda, NY, on March 15 night in the form of the Count Basie Orchestra. They played a benefit there to help send the school’s band to a jazz festival competition in Toronto.
“I can’t stand no 20-year-old telling me what swing is,” the group’s director Grover Mitchell told the audience. Mitchell was a member of Basie’s band, as well as Duke Ellington’s, during his career. He knows what he’s talking about. “There can never be any ‘new’ swing. It either swings or it doesn’t.”
And swing they did, for nearly two hours, playing arrangements with precision and punch, fast and slow, roaring and shifting.
This is no nostalgia band, playing boring stock arrangements of “hits.” It is still considered by critics as among the greatest in the world.
Some of today’s other great big bands experiment with form, investigate fusion with other types of music and explore more, and well they should. Not the Basie group. The music is based on two things: swing and the blues. They hit the ground running and swing you to death, in various speeds and volumes. They don’t pretend to do anything else.
They don’t have to.
The musicians are outstanding, varying in age. But they run through arrangements beautifully, executing so as to make it look easy. The songs came from great arrangers, as was always the case with Basie. Arrangements by Ernie Wilkins, Neil Hefti, Sam Netisco and Frank Foster were all featured prominently. They played well-known material from the band’s history, but newer things, some penned by a younger member of the trumpet section, Bob Ojeda.
They even featured some Ellington material, with “In a Mellow Tone,” penned by the Duke, and “Blood Count,” written by Ellington’s right hand man, Billy Strayhorn. The latter song was perhaps the only number that didn’t swing. Instead, Strays sophisticated ballad was played nicely by baritone saxophonist John Williams. Hefti’s “Fan Tail” swung like mad, featuring outstanding sax work by John Kelson, who played with a distinct Johnny Hodges flair, not with the more furious, be-bop oriented fashion to which most players subscribe. Scotty Barnhart’s trumpet was bold and brash. “Right On, Right On” was a swinger that ended with the entire brass and sax section standing and playing a line, boldly in unison, coming to an exciting climax that showed the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All the solists are good, but the one who stood out most was trumpeter Barnhart. He worked with powerful plunger solos at times, making the horn screech, growl and howl. Other times his open horn was strong and clean, his technique fluid and his phasing confident. Longtime band member Kenny Hing was also a strong soloist on tenor sax, and the work of Brad Leali on alto and Clarence Banks on trombone also stood out. The band also has a weapon that helps push it to the top of the ranks – drummer Butch Miles. Miles, to these ears, is the best drummer Basie ever had after his original, the legendary Jo Jones. He performed with Basie from 1975-80. Drumming for a big band jazz is not the same as smaller groups. The drummer is the bus driver, pushing the unit, and as he goes the band goes. And Miles has always been among the best big band drummers in the world. He returned in 1997 and they should hope he stays. Miles is also a showman. He plays, like Gene Krupa always stressed, like he is enjoying himself and wants the fans to know it. He smiles, mugs, laughs through the concert, and has several slick moves with sticks and brushes that are visually entertaining. But all the while he is the pulse and the motor of the propulsive swing, whether it’s thunderous or soft. His solo on “The Drum Thing” brought the house down, but his work behind the band is what counts. The orchestra also brought a singer, baritone Jamie Davis.
Davis’ strong voice was fine on “Autumn Leaves” and “You Are Too Beautiful,” his inflection sounding more like Lou Rawls’ soul than Joe Williams’ blues. Other songs didn’t fare so well. “Come Fly With Me” would not scare Sinatra, and “World On String”and “My One and Only Love” were inconsistent.
There was one switch not found in the old Basie book. Guitarist Will Mathews sat on a stool and did nothing but strum chords, chords, chords, as Freddy Green did for decades at Basie’s side without soloing. But in the second set, Matthews was featured playing both solo and with the trio, starting off with “Willow Weep for Me,” segueing into “Round Midnight,” then leading the band into a Basie staple, Hefti’s “Little Darlin’.”
Perhaps the standout number was “Blues in Hosses Flat,” by Foster, which started out roaring, with a hot, fiery solo by Barnhart, but eventually went into as soft and hushed a tone as a 19-piece band could possibly muster ... and it STILL swung.
The band can flat out cook.
Both sets ended with a short burst of the best-known Basie hit, “One O’Clock Jump.” That final blaring of all the brass, building to a crescendo then halting for those three soft, repeated notes on piano “tink .... tink ....tink.” is still exciting to hear. It also makes one wish that William Basie from Red Bank, N.J., was still the one plunking the keyboard.