The Count Basie Orchestra: Live At Birdland

Heartfelt and popular 2020 tribute to the Basie band is enjoyable but doesn't reach the heights of the original's 1961 NYC appearance

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The latest reincarnation of “The Count Basie Orchestra” (CBO) has considerable merits, but minus Basie himself is rather like “The Marx Brothers” minus Groucho – not quite authentic. Under the direction of Scotty Barnhart and with pianist Glen Pearson ghosting (and extending) Basie’s minimalist fingerings, the band, performing before an enthusiastic (if not rowdy) audience over four nights in January 2020 at Birdland in New York City offered a mixture of “New Testament” Basie favourites with some surprising additions – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning, How Do You Keep The Music Playing and What Kind Of Fool Am I. The “New Testament” versions of titles like The Kid From Red Bank, Basie Power, Moten Swing and Shiny Stockings retain the flavour of the originals, but without soloists to match the likes of Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Frank Wess, Bud Johnson and Charlie Fowlkes, Freddie Green and Sonny Payne.

That said, their successors acquit themselves with credit. The handsome accompanying booklet identifies the soloists on every one of the 33 tracks – and Scotty Barnhart also announces their names to the audience. The band can (and does) explode on some familiar (but adapted) charts – Basie Power, Kansas City Shout, One O’Clock Jump, Moten Swing and Whirly Bird. Vocalist Carmen Bradford (originally hired by Basie) offers enjoyable versions of Honeysuckle Rose and Only The Young, accompanied by tenorist Doug Lawrence, and is joined by fellow vocalist Jamie Davis on How Do You Keep The Music Playing.

Elsewhere, Glen Pearson introduces Easin’ It with a lazy loping solo. Brandon Lee fashions a moving interpretation of What’s New with gentle backing from the orchestra. Pearson is the soloist on an uptempo Kansas City Shout. Doug Lawrence (tenor) and David Keim (trombone) inject O’Clock Jump with appropriate fire and swagger and leave an ecstatic audience chanting “Count Basie!”

Disc two opens a full-throated version of Sammy Nestico’s The Wind Machine, with Doug Miller on tenor and explosive drum breaks from Robert Boone Jr. April In Paris sticks very closely to the famous arrangement but has an innovative solo from Barnhart, who encourages the audience to request it “one more time” complete with the Jingle Bells coda. The talented Barnhart is also heard on a fast-tempo There Will Never Be Another You. Shiny Stocking is a feature for Brandon Lee and visiting ex-Basie alumnus Butch Miles. Moten Swing moves its listeners to vocalise and MC Barnhart dubs them an “invisible choir.” Pearson, Doug Lawrence and Barnhart turn in memorable solos, while the band provides an initial shouting and then a shaded down backing.

Frank Foster’s composition Blues In Hoss’ Flat, with a growling trombone solo from Mark Williams and appropriate interjections from Pearson, stands favourable comparison with the original. The deep-voiced Jamie Davis delivers Once In A While, with a flying solo from altoist Markus Howell and booting backing from the orchestra. Whirly Bird, always associated with “Lockjaw” Davis, has Josh Lee on baritone offering his own take on the famous chorus, accompanied by blazing trumpets and top and tailed by Boone’s furious drumming in a rather rabble-rousing ending.

The real Basie orchestra’s appearance at Birdland in 1961 was captured on record and rates among its finest “live” performances. Sixty years later, Scotty Barnhart and his merry men don’t rise to those heights, but deserve respectful attention to their heartfelt tributes.

Discography
CD1: Introduction; The Kid From Red Bank; Who, Me? Way Out Basie; In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning; Doodle Oodle; Four Five Six; Basie Power; Honeysuckle Rose; Only The Young; I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; Easin’ It; What’s New; Kansas City Shout; How Do You Keep The Music Playing; Basie; One O’Clock Jump (76.07)
CD2: The Wind Machine; April In Paris; There Will Never Be Another You; I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face; I Needs To Be Bee’d With; Flute Juice; Moten Swing; Blues In Hoss’ Flat; Once In A While; Five O’Clock In The Morning; Shiny Stockings; What Kind Of Fool Am I; ‘Deed I Do; From One To Another; Whirly Bird; One O’Clock Jump (Short) (74.11)

Scotty Barnhart (director, t); David Glasser (lead as, f); Markus Howell (as, f); Doug Lawrence, Doug Miller (ts); Josh Lee (bar); David Keim (lead tb); Clarence Hanks, Mark Williams (t); Alvin Walker (btb); Frank Green (lead t); Shawn Edmonds, Endre Rice, Brandon Lee (t); Glen Pearson (p); Will Matthews (g); Trevor Ware (b); Robert “B.T.” Boone, Jr. (d); Butch Miles (d, tracks 11, 12). Carmen Bradford, Jamie Davis (v). Birdland, New York City, 15-18 January, 2020.
Candid CCD30072