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Count Basie Orchestra at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

Patricia Myers By

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Count Basie Orchestra
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Scottsdale, Arizona
December 19, 2015

The Count Basie Orchestra solidified its 80-year reputation for strong swingability, inventive solo segments and supreme section cohesion during two back-to-back concerts on a tour in support of the band's first-ever Christmas-theme album. But those seasonal charts didn't dominate the program, instead were scattered like raisins in a melodic holiday pudding. Several soloists cleverly injected Christmas-song snippets into the band's expected jazz repertoire, but the core of the music was pure Bill Basie.

Long-loved charts ranged from "Blues in Hoss' Flat" and "Corner Pocket" to "Wind Machine" and "Way Out Basie." Trumpeter Scotty Barnhart led the ensemble (after his own 20 years in the brass section), elevating the program by digging deep into the archives for Earle Warren's "9:20 Special" and Frank Foster's "Hey Jim" from the late 1930s and '40s.

This swing-shift crew included vocalist Carmen Bradford (hired by Basie in 1983) and nine others with nearly that longevity. So a perfect closer for the second concert was the Joe Williams mega-hit, "Every Day I Have the Blues," solidly conveyed in a guest cameo by Phoenix vocalist Dennis Rowland, who toured with the band from 1977-84, and who continues to surmount effects of a near-fatal stroke three years ago.

Both concerts dispensed a lot more than seasonal dazzle injected with heritage sounds. The orchestra's infectious alchemy playing "the Basie sound" was proof that its blues-based swing continues to reign absolute, unabated during the 30 years since the leader's death. This current collective delivered the same uber-high level of power and dynamics as the various Basie bands I've heard and reviewed since the mid- 1970s.

Pianist Reggie Thomas was impressive in both concerts, balancing memorably minimal Basie interjections with flourishes of Harlem stride in stunning solos. Tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence was called upon repeatedly to excite with burning solos. Bradford handled "Honeysuckle Rose" with energetic aplomb, inserting a scat segment reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald's on the Quincy Jones-arranged "Ella and Basie" Verve LP of 1963. There also was a captivating piccolo solo by Cleave Guyton that generated huge applause.

Outstanding solos were played by trombonists Clarence Banks and David Keim, trumpeter Mike Williams and saxophonists Marshall McDonald and Doug Miller, as guitarist Will Matthews solidly replicated the late Freddie Green's perfect "chomp-chomp" rhythm style, drummer Dave Gibson constant with enlivened percussive punctuation and bassist Trevor Ware added rich resonance.

The best elements most certainly were the inclusion of charts by longtime and stellar composers such as Frank Foster ("Back to the Apple"), Sammy Nestico ("Wind Machine"), Billy Byers ("Basie Land") and, of course, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" via Bradford's expressive style.

The synergy of each of the three horn sections contributed superb dynamics throughout, notably on "All of Me," "Corner Pocket" and surprise inclusions of the Duke Ellington blockbuster, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," and Louis Armstrong's 1927 hit, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

Obvious omissions from both programs were the band's longtime hit-making composer Neal Hefti, such as "Li'l Darlin'" and "Cute." That longtime element evidently was displaced by the requisite CD sales-boosting holiday fare, some notably arranged by Nestico (still writing at age 91) and the more modern-age bandleader Gordon Goodwin. But even those were performed in the true-to-Basie style that kept the audience attentive and satisfied.

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