The Count Basie Orchestra's debut for MAMA Records embraces the best of two worlds - the Count's hard-swinging brass, reeds and rhythm and the graceful and enduring melodies of Duke Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn). It doesn't get much more inviting than that. If the Basie organization has lost any appreciable ground under the Count's successors - first Frank Foster, now Grover Mitchell - it isn't readily apparent. Everyone seems in topnotch form on these seamless interpretations of a baker's dozen of well-known compositions by Ellington and Strayhorn (who wrote "Take the 'A' Train" and co-wrote "Star Crossed Lovers"). Allyn Ferguson's arrangements, while perhaps a notch or two below the originals (which is of course a matter of taste), are nonetheless charming in a modern, Sammy Nestico-like groove that always respects the Basie heritage and propels the band scrupulously forward. The landscape is further brightened by former Basie standout Frank Wess whose acrobatic flute adorns "I Got It Bad," "Just Squeeze Me" and "Love You Madly" and whose alto saxophone adds the proper Ellingtonian ambiance to "Sentimental Mood." While individual soloists aren't listed on my advance copy of the disc (whose release date is September 8), some are obvious, such as tenor Kenny Hing and trumpeter Bobby Ojeda on "'A' Train," Hing again on "Mood Indigo" and alto Brad Leali on "Star Crossed Lovers." Other soloists include trombonists Mitchell and Bill Hughes, trumpeter Scotty Barnhart and drummer Butch Miles (good to have him back in Basie's rhythm section). Pianist Conley sounds quite Basie-like on his intro to "Cottontail" (on which he manages to insert a quote from Denzil Best's "Move") before brass and reeds punctuate the quintessential swinger with some blistering passages (and another brief quote, this one from "Bernie's Tune") and Ojeda appends a flashing chorus. Like Count's original orchestra, the new edition employs a rhythm guitar (Matthews) but his presence is rarely felt (owing perhaps to the nature of the music). The exceptions are "Cottontail" and "Mood Indigo," where Matthews confirms the value of the rhythm guitar. The Basie orchestra is a working ensemble, touring the world almost year-round and appearing everywhere from Jazz festivals to theatres and night clubs. There are no weak links in this chain. Give them wonderful music to perform - such as that composed by Ellington and Strayhorn - and rest assured that they'll interpret it about as well as anyone can. Count Plays Duke is an unqualified success, and warmly recommended.
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