What’s In a Name. Almost all of the most famous big bands of the Swing era of the ‘30s and ‘40s live on in one incarnation or another. They tour, playing what can be considered the “greatest hits” from the band’s heyday book with a few inventive covers and new original pieces thrown in. The bands are typically very competent and their performances are flawless and professional. Aside from the occasional interesting or compelling arrangement, these performances can be boring. That is not to say that the music is not enjoyable or bad. It reflects a certain “playing-it-safe” attitude with some of the war-horses or the big band era. While Count Plays Duke and At Long Last brush the pedestrian, they more often than not provide a welcome freshness to the music.
Common Ground. Grover Mitchell capably directs the Basie Orchestra on both of these releases, using the arrangements of Allyn Ferguson on both discs and adding John Oddo and Peter Matz as arrangers on At Long Last. The arrangements are tasteful and often pleasantly surprising. “Take the ‘A’ Train” from Count Plays Duke is taken at a slow strolling pace sans the familiar Ellington/Strayhorn introduction. The muted trumpets and spare piano accompaniment on At Long Last ’s “Willow Weep for Me” provide a comfortable cushion upon which Ms. Clooney may rest her experienced jazz phrasing. And such goes both discs. Extremely palatable music that is easy to listen to.
...And You are No Count Basie. "The Count Basie Orchestra" is a trade name for an otherwise competent, yet unremarkable band that performs on both of these discs. Calling a band today, "The Count Basie Orchestra" or the "Glenn Miller Orchestra" plays off of the same nostalgia that makes baby-boomers pay $23,000 for the new Volkswagen Beetle. Nothing beats the old Beetles (provided you liked them to begin with and nothing beats the Complete Atomic Basie. Rosemary Clooney is in fine form on At Long Last, making that disc interesting. My final opinion? It is schizophrenic. These recordings are very good, but did the marketplace really need them?
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