The Count Basie Orchestra and Vocalist Lizz Wright
The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA
May 6, 2005
During this past concert season, the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, has offered a number of double bills, perhaps to provide variety and contrast, suggest comparisons, and include more artists. The pairing of rising star Lizz Wright with the venerable Count Basie Orchestra made for a powerful dialectic between soulful ballads with a backup of two guitars and a rhythm section versus the fast-paced, swinging energy of the Basie band. The common threads that ran through the two performances were intensity, musicianship, and character. Wright held the audience's rapt attention with her strong contralto voice, her depth of expression with fine articulation and spiritual conviction, and - at the risk of being politically incorrect - her beautiful body, awakening feelings of dark, Southern nights in her native Georgia. (The photo on her CD, Salt, does not do justice to her commanding physical presence.) The Basie band, led by trombonist Bill Hughes, capitalized on the strengths of Wright's show to come on after the intermission with the powerful, swinging rhythm and machine-like precision which has electrified audiences since the group's inception in Kansas City 70 years ago.
The secret of the Count Basie Orchestra that has sustained its popularity and currency long after the end of the big band era has been its connection to the blues, combined with its uncanny ability to accommodate extended and multiple solos and duets within the context of a large, dominant ensemble. And what a wide-ranging variety of solo styles there has been, while at the same time the Basie sound has remained constant and unmistakable! Consider that Johnny Griffin and Lester Young, Thad Jones and Clark Terrydiverse as they were- could each express his own unique and subtle idiom while the band rolled forward like a Mack Truck. Or that almost any fine vocalistfrom Sinatra to Joe Williams, and Sarah Vaughan to Ella Fitzgerald to Diane Schuur, could easily engage with and benefit from their backup. The Basie sound is such an essential distillation of jazz syntax that it will do justice to almost any performer who can swing and tell a story. And the sound was at its best in this concert. Bill Hughes has tuned the "wham machine up to a finely-honed precision instrument, exalting the tradition while incorporating modernity, and honoring every individual on the stage with him. When Gerry Mulligan formed his big band in the 1960's, one of the things he wanted to do was to give his musicians a rich and enjoyable musical experience. It was obvious how much the updated Basie band enjoyed playing, and how this joy impregnated the sound itself as well as the audience response.
Let's go back to Lizz Wright's performance. Backed up by a fine rhythm section and two excellent guitarists, Wright started out with the well-known ballad, "A Taste of Honey, with expressive acoustic and electric guitar soloing that established a rhythm and blues mood for her set. (This appears to be a trend among younger jazz vocalists, such as Cassandra Wilson.) She then introduced herself, mentioning her soon to be released CD, Dreaming Wide Awake, from which she did several songs: "Trouble in the Air (with a Latin feeling); "Don't Tell Me to Stop, "Hit the Ground (written by Wright, Jessie Harris, and Toshi Reagon), and "When I Close My Eyes. From her highly praised 2003 CD, Salt, Wright performed the title tune, "Salt," "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, "Blue Rose, and "Walk with Me, Lord. Especially in this last number, Wright's past experience singing gospel music in her church choir was evident. In general, she seemed to be making a statement about the lives of African American women in the small communities that dot the South. The songs and her style were very intimate and contained a certain sadness even where there is much love. Wright is a singer of strong sentiment and voice, more like Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson than Norah Jones. Yet her style ultimately is all her own. Through her powerful "chops and steady, well-modulated interpretations, she projects strength of character that makes her music meaningful beyond the exigencies of the moment and serves as a positive message to all African American women.
Following the intermission, the Basie band came on stage, and Bill Hughes dedicated the concert to Jimmy Wood and Percy Heath, the great bassists - both from the Philadelphia area, I believe - who passed away recently. Hughes, who worked with the Count in the 1970's, inherited the post of leader from his saxophonist colleague Frank Foster. Bill, as well as John Williams, baritone sax, Clarence Banks, trombone, Butch Miles, drums, and James Leary, bass all worked or performed with Count Basie. Several members have worked with the band for ten years or more, and the rest are relatively new recruits.
The group began with the Ellington classic, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be. As a former trombonist myself, I was especially struck by the fine "choir ensemble sound of the trombone section. (After the show, I told Bill that he must work them pretty hard, but he replied, "No, they're all just great musicians. ) Lively alto and trumpet solos presaged the emphasis on the individual players that pervaded the whole set. Then came Sam Nestico's "The Wham Machine with a powerful tenor solo by Doug Miller. Next, Lizz Wright joined the group, singing the standard, "Jazz Is... and title tune of her new CD, Dreaming Wide Awake. Her musical versatility was evident: she fit in perfectly with the band, and her execution was seamless. Then came the Basie classic, "Corner Pocket, composed by his long-time guitarist Freddie Green. After that, Hughes turned up the volume with Neil Hefti's "Fan Tail featuring solos and trading off by two altos and two trumpets, with an astonishing solo by trumpeter Endre Rice. Hughes then introduced the band's vocalist Melba Joyce, a red hot mama in a red dress with a voice like Nancy Wilson and a blues style all her own. Joyce walloped "All of Me and showed her versatility and nuanced phrasing with the ballad: "What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?
The group did more than justice to the famous Frank Foster tune: "Shiny Stockings. Its slow-paced swing was reinforced by Shawn Edmonds' trumpet solo. The brass section's use of mutes is characteristic of Basie's unique use of muting to create a sense of subtlty within his powerful voicings. The immortal "April in Paris featured Bill Hughes' luscious trombone solo, and Scotty Barnhardt did the famous "Pop Goes the Weasel trumpet solo with aplomb. Lizz Wright came back on with a lovely rendition of "Nature Boy, made famous by Nat King Cole. I was struck here by the incredible antiphonal choir effect between brass and winds: someone is doing some great arrangements for the group these days. Things went wild with Neil Hefti's "Duet, in which Endre Rice and Scotty Barnard outdid themselves. Then drummer Butch Miles did his thing on "The Drum Boy with a fine tenor sax solo by Doug Miller. The evening closed in a lovely sentimental way with the the classic "One O'Clock Jump," with Bill and Melba dancing together as the audience gave a rousing ovation.
Lizz Wright Personnel
John Cowherd (Piano); Doug Weiss (Bass); Mike Moreno and Marvin Sewell (Guitars); Earl Harwin (Drums) (Please note: Based on information obtained subsequently, this personnel list is corrected from the original posting. Apologies to all.VLS)
Count Basie Orchestra Personnel
Bill Hughes, Bass Trombone & Leader; John Williams, Baritone Saxophone; Doug Miller, Tenor Saxophone; Alto Saxophone; Marshall McDonald, Alto Saxophone; Doug Lawrence, Tenor Saxophone; Clarence Banks, Trombone; Alvin Walker, Trombone; Dave Keim, Trombone; Barry Cooper, Trombone; Scotty Barnhart, Trumpet; Michael Williams, Trumpet; Shawn Edmonds, Trumpet; Endre Rice, Trumpet; Butch Miles, Drums; James Leary, Bass; Will Matthews, Guitar; Tony Suggs, Piano; Melba Joyce, Vocalist
Lizz Wright by Jose Horna