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Jazz Review Print

The Count Basie Orchestra: Still
Swingin' at 81

February 20, 2016 - Chapel Hill, NC:

We are all used to those great BOGO deals (Buy One Get One) when food shopping, but there was the equivalent of Buy One Get Two free at Memorial Hall on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. Carolina Performing Arts presented the Count Basie Orchestra and included the great vocal quartet New York Voices as well as singer Diane Schuur, both who have a long relationship with this great and enduring big band.

William "Count" Basie (1904 - 1984) started up his band in Kansas City in 1935 and throughout the years assembled some of the greatest section musicians, soloists, arrangers and composers during an era when big bands were as ubiquitous as iPhones are today. Now in its 81st year, the Count Basie Orchestra continues its high level of musicianship with a lineup that includes several players whom Basie himself hired, as well as younger members that exemplify the high standards of this iconic ensemble. This is no "tribute" band – it is the real deal that continues to have the stamp of Basie as its starts its ninth decade of touring. 

Taking over the leadership role is trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. He has a wonderful presence. He told some great stories and announced every selection, including the songwriter, arranger and the soloists. He also played some lovely, lyrical solos. They started out with a tune called "Hey Jim," not one of their most recognizable numbers but a great vehicle for the band. As a result of this orchestra's enormous fame, they have appeared in many movies, most curiously quite a few of Jerry Lewis'! But probably their most famous appearance was in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles where, out in the desert, they played their signature work "April in Paris." As they played it here in Chapel Hill, you could see smiles of recognition and remembrance on the faces in the audience of those who recall that major hit from their youth. They moved on to "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," the epitome of cry-in-your-drink ballads made famous by Frank Sinatra, who paired with Basie on several classic albums.

During their heyday, most big bands almost always featured a singer, and the Basie Orchestra continues that tradition. First up on that count (no pun intended) was New York Voices, a vocal quartet in the tradition of Singers Unlimited, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and Manhattan Transfer. Members Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge harmonize in songs from every conceivable genre, but tonight it was all straight-ahead jazz. They started out with a classic song from the Ellington songbook, "In a Mellow Tone" and we heard a beautiful example of their close knit harmonies. The highlight of their set was a nearly note-for-note performance of one of the greatest vocal performances: "Cloudburst" as recorded by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. For the most part, New York Voices' performance and arrangements of up-tempo songs were more successful than their ballads. Their versions of "For All We Know" and Nancy Wilson's heartbreaker "Save Your Love for Me" came off as a bit tepid.

The band, of course, was masterful in the right balance between accompanying the singer and tooting its own horn, so to speak. As far as soloing, Doug Lawrence, tenor sax, dominated as featured soloist not only for the sax section but the entire band. Not quite sure why that was, as there was one trumpet solo which literally lasted only seconds of screeching high notes and a few other very brief ones.  

The second half started off with Steve Allen's biggest hit and his personal theme "Start of Something Big." Another iconic Basie hit, Neal Hefti's "Lil Darlin'" was played to "oohs and ahhs" of recognition. They finished up with "Basie" – a full-out tribute that had the band swingin' so that the man himself had to be smiling.

Diane Schuur's relationship with the Count Basie Orchestra goes back more than thirty years and you can sense the musical camaraderie from the first notes. Schuur, blinded from birth by the same affliction that affected Stevie Wonder, was escorted onto the stage and helped to a chair from which she sang for the entire performance. She has a wonderfully pure and clear soprano voice and loves to match the lead trumpet for those crystal atmospheric high notes at the end of many songs. She gave a magnificent, well-balanced set ranging from sensitive ballads like "We'll be Together Again" to the hot blues number "Every Day I Have the Blues," undoubtedly sung as an homage to the late, great Joe Williams who was the singer for Basie from 1954-1961. Schuur also showed off her great scatting technique as she traded blues licks with several of the band members.

As one would expect, the finale called all forces back to the stage as Schuur, New York Voices and the Count Basie Orchestra performed a rollicking "Smack Dab in the Middle." This involved an audience singalong, and we didn't do too bad considering that we had to sing back some difficult blues vocal lines.

It was clear from this concert that the Count Basie Orchestra, and many bands like this, will continue to have a long life ahead, despite it being pronounced as a "dinosaur" many times in the past. The audience was a huge mix of ages, and I would even say at least half were under thirty; that bodes well for what should be the obvious observation that great music is forever.