by Marilyn Lester
There was a time, when the Count was still alive, when Birdland was the home of the Basie Orchestra, so it’s only fitting that the band was booked for a five-day residency as in the days of yore. The opening number was a grabber – a big brass blow of “Hey! Jim (Moody’s Blues)” by James Moody. It was quickly followed by another power number, Frank Foster’s “Who Me?” which featured a strong solo by current Basie leader, trumpeter and high-note wailer, Scotty Barnhart. There was now no question that the train had left the station and would be barreling down the tracks at maximum velocity.
William James “Count” Basie formed the band in 1935, employing some of the best talent in the country such as Buck Owens and Lester Young, and arranger/composers Frank Foster and Neal Hefti. There was a brief disbandment of the band in the early 1950s, but since then the orchestra has toured without letup, even after the charismatic Basie’s death in 1984. The Count Basie Orchestra has always had a reputation for swinging hard. Barnhart has kept that ethos alive with music from the catalog in classic and new arrangements. Barnhart conducts with power and precision; all seventeen players are on point, playing meticulously and cleanly. A few standards were offered, including the most requested of all the band’s numbers, according to Barnhart, an up tempo “April in Paris.” From Basie’s tribute album to Frank Sinatra came “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” featuring a piano solo by George Caldwell. Basie was a pianist who played a lean style; Caldwell’s approach was similarly no-frills and direct, with a warm, rich tone.
Brianna Thomas, the young jazz singer who’s been on the scene for about a decade, offered three songs midway through the set. Thomas has a light but effective voice, with range. She seemed a bit unsure as she led with “I’m Old Fashioned” and continued with a subdued “Stardust,” as one might who’s having vocal distress, perhaps owing to a cold. Her final number, the bluesy “Trouble In Mind” was the most successful of her efforts.
Homage was paid to the great Duke Ellington (and Basie amigo) with the Ellington Orchestra’s theme song, “Take the A Train,” arranged for the Basie band by Frank Foster. The band also played an Ellington-inspired piece from Basie’s early years, written by then band member Earle Warren: “9:20 Special.” On the ballad side, Sammy Nestico’s “Soft as Velvet” allowed the band to take a brief break from swing, with a solo for an instrument not usually associated with jazz, a piccolo, played by Cleve Guyton, Jr. (primarily an alto sax player). A fierce drum solo was executed by Ray Nelson (stepping into the shoes of predecessor Rufus “Speedy” Jones) to a Neil Hefti composition, the aptly named “Whirly Bird.” Hefti’s ode to the Count, “Basie” was the ultra-swinging closer of the set. Basie himself would have been proud. The only item missing was an essential to swing back in the day – a dance floor.
The Count Basie Orchestra, July 19 through 23
Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, 212-581-3080 www.birdlandjazz.com