Paquito D'Rivera, Count Basie and Nnenna Freelon at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Basie group was in top form throughout and magically evoked the sensational feeling of those heady days when Basie would make his short 'clinks' on the piano, and the group would break out into unsurpassed swinging ecstasy.
Paquito D'Rivera Quintet; The Count Basie Orchestra; Nnenna Freelon
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
September 28, 2007

The first concert in the series of Mellon Jazz Fridays at the Kimmel Center kicked off in the midst of Phillies "fever, with our local baseball team vying to hold first place in the Eastern conference, so the concert was interspersed with updates of the scores of the Phils and the Mets games by Anne Ewers, the new Kimmel CEO, and Mervon Mehta, seasoned Vice President for Programming. There was also an announcement that Mellon Bank had recently merged with the Bank of New York but thankfully would continue its sponsorship of this outstanding and popular jazz series.

However, the audience's attention was quickly diverted to the anticipation of music as Paquito D'Rivera and his group came on to perform. It was clear even from the first few bars that this was a group of virtuosi making the finest quality Latin-based jazz instead of the pop-jazz mix all too typical of the genres comprising the world of latin pop. Diego Urcola's up-tempo valve trombone solo on the first piece, "What About That? from D'Rivera's new CD, Funk Tango (Sunnyside Records, 2007), was done with carefully measured artistry reminiscent of the great Bob Brookmeyer, and Urcola's full and rich timbre was a pleasure to the ear. Urcula's arresting tones, moreover, set the stage for what was literally a series of complex compositions, rather than just "tunes, by a group manifesting exceptional musical sensibilities.

Bassist Oscar Stagnaro's composition, "Mariela's Dream, also from the new CD, featured solos by the versatile Urcola on muted trumpet, D'Rivera on saxophone, and Stagnoro on his guitar-style bass, which he used to great advantage throughout. Starting out with the flavor of a "Dizzy bebop tune (Dizzy Gillespie was D'Rivera's mentor and colleague in the early days), the piece evolved through various movements, developing each while undergoing several transfigurations, ultimately culminating in a powerful tango-style rhythm. Such transformations can only be executed by the most proficient players and accomplished improvisationally by the very best of jazz musicians. A nod must be given to Gillespie here, because he was one of the pioneers, along with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans among others, in the coming of age of jazz as a full musical form—not exclusively an improvising soloist's idiom but an extemporaneous-sounding compositional expression influenced by the spontaneity of the individual player.

In keeping with the theme of the new CD, a tango composition by the great Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzola, revealed still further complexities in the capable hands of D'Rivera, who incorporated shifting moods, tempos, and intensities, as if his performance were a deconstructive and reconstructive study of Piazzola's melody and erotic rhythmic pulsations. D'Rivera showed himself to be in total possession of the music both as instrumentalist and leader. Pianist Alex Brown, a twenty-year old boy wonder, played an astonishing solo both in terms of technique and musical expression. Brown is simply a budding genius of jazz piano (think Art Tatum and Bud Powell) and is likely to lay claim to some spectacular achievements in the future.

"Fiddle Dreams, originally written by D'Rivera for violinist Regina Carter, proved to be a rich, elaborate work starting out in a bebop mode and developing a feeling of the gang "rumble from West Side Story. Taking the notion of musical composition to still further heights, this piece literally included several "movements in sonata form.

The set ended on a spectacular note, with an upbeat bossa nova. Super-rapid soloing by Stagnaro and a cool cornet solo by Urcola with shades of Art Farmer, led to an extended section with a Bach-like theme and variations suggestive of the "Well-Tempered Clavier, including solos by all the members of the group. It reminded me of a mind-blowing recording of a jazz version of a Bach fugue by the transplanted French pianist Bernard Peiffer, an unsung hero of jazz who influenced Michel Legrande. You've got to be very confident in yourself as a complete musician to pull off something like this, and the D'Rivera Quintet certainly met the challenge with flying colors. All in all, they provided a magnificent set of serious music combined with the "lightness of being which Mr. D'Rivera brings with him wherever he goes.

I wondered if the Count Basie Orchestra might prove anticlimactic after such a stellar performance, but there is something about the Basie sound that immediately grabs you, and this show was no exception. Percussion is crucial to the Basie idiom, and drummer Brian Grice drove the group with that remarkable combination of power and grace that Sonny Payne gave to the Basie band in its salad days. Coincidentally, Mr. Grice looks like you might imagine a Basie drummer in a movie, a big guy who moves around the drums like he's got shock absorbers under his seat! Of the various standards performed by the group in the first half of the set, especially welcome was Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone as arranged by the great Basie saxophonist and arranger Frank Foster, who also served as music director immediately after Basie's demise. Equally enjoyable was Foster's arrangement of "Disconnection, with a fine trumpet solo by Mark Williams, and a piece entitled "IQ, dedicated to the legendary saxophonist, Ike Quebec.

The first half of the set was brought to a climax by two Basie classics, "One O'Clock Jump and "April in Paris," representing respectively what have been called the "Old Testament and "New Testament and incarnations of the band. The group was in top form throughout and magically evoked the sensational feeling of those heady days when Basie would make his short "clinks on the piano (recapitulated now by Tony Suggs) and the whole ensemble would break out into unsurpassed swinging ecstasy. (Basie, always a master of understatement and brevity, was once asked to define jazz, and simply replied, "Tap your feet. )

Hughes then introduced singer Nnenna Freelon and her music director (as well as arranger and, like Hughes, a trombonist), Dennis Wilson. Mr. Wilson admirably took over the podium, conducting the band in a controlled and nuanced way typical of the recording studio, in sharp contrast to Mr. Hughes' minimalist and trusting Basie-like leadership. Wilson hunched over the band, using his entire body—hands, arms, shoulders, and trunk—to get all the details right. The group responded with a virtually airtight ensemble effect, backing Ms. Freelon to a "T. Freelon started out with a swinging version of "Shiny Stockings, then, mostly with the support of the rhythm section, did a lovely ballad called "I Have Waited So Long, written by Sarah Vaughan. She dedicated "You've Changed to Billie Holiday, in keeping with her CD devoted to "Lady Day." On this number, Doug Lawrence peformed a lyrical tenor sax solo that would have pleased Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. This number was followed by superb arrangements of Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me, Garner's "Misty, and the Jerry Bock standard "Too Close for Comfort. Freelon was fully up to the task of singing with the Basie band. Her timing and rhythm were impeccable, and she swung the music firmly but lightly with shades of both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan as well as her own unique "diva style.

The set concluded with a standing ovation and an encore, a classic blues finale with Bill Hughes conducting and Freelon singing scat. At that point, the dynamic between Hughes and Freelon appeared a trifle strained to me, and mirrored a vague concern I had about the atmospheric shift caused by the abrupt change of band leaders and arrangement styles when Ms. Freelon and Mr. Wilson took the stage. Perhaps Bill Hughes could have handled the segue differently, but my misgivings were more than likely associated with the anticipation of a change in the band's identity if and when Hughes steps down from the music directorship after his splendid tour of duty. It would be a shame were the Basie band—the foremost personification of the swing era itself—reduced to secondary status as somebody's back-up band.

Stellar vocalists like Rushing, Williams, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Bennett, Vaughan, more recently Liz Wright, and a host of others who have thirsted for the opportunity, then realized their dream to sing with this great band, always stayed in the more humble role of guest singer, while Ms. Freelon brought on her own leader and arrangements, taking over the reins from Hughes and the group. (As I recall, Sinatra brought some of his own arrangements—by Quincy Jones in particular—when working with Basie but never a music director, which would have been an insult to Basie, whom he admired and trusted.) In all fairness, everything Freelon and Wilson did was top notch and faithful to the Basie sound; yet clearly the difficult nature of the big band business is no less a concern to the last and arguably greatest of the big bands. The Count Basie Orchestra is an American institution going back to its earliest days in Kansas City in the 1930s, and I sincerely hope it never loses its inimitable sound and continuity with a tradition of over 75 years. This band belongs to America and not to any single guest performer or impressario, however talented he or she may be.

Paquito D'Rivera Quintet:
Paquito D'Rivera: saxophone/clarinet; Diego Urcola: trumpet, valve trombone: Oscar Stagnaro: bass; Alex Brown: piano; Eric Doob: drums

Count Basie Orichestra:
Bill Hughes: conductor and trombone; trumpets: Michael P. Williams, William "Scotty Barnhart, Endre Rice, Freddie Hendrix; trombones: Clarence Banks, Alvin Walker, David Keim, Barry Cooper; saxophones: John Williams, baritone; Doug Miller, tenor; Doug Lawrence, tenor; John Kelson, lead alto; Marshall McDonald, alto; rhythm: Brian Grice: drums, James Leary: bass, Will Matthews: guitar, Tony Suggs: piano.

Nnenna Freelon: vocals; Dennis Wilson, conductor, trombone, and music director for Ms. Freelon along with the aforementioned members of the Basie Band.

Visit Paquito D'Rivera, The Count Basie Orchestra and Nenna Freelon on the web.

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