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by Lee Tomboulian
Big band or small, a band that keeps on after their leader passes away runs the risk of losing a sense of purpose, or worse,in trombonist Jimmy Knepper's pungent phrase, becoming a "necrophiliac orchestra" (referring to the Charles Mingus Dynasty). The problem is more acute if the band's been around a long time, and the temptation is there to play it safe, play the hits. For the Count Basie Orchestra, the hits are fine, but does the band swing, in the Nineties, with the same tough four-on-the-floor groove as the original had, even in the Thirties?
The Basie Orchestra at Summerset '90 blew away all doubt.
The motor of the Basie-mobile is built acording to the Count's specs, like so: the rhythm guitarist lays down a chunk-chunk, four beats to the bar, and the bass and drums swing alongside gently, the piano makes piquant assertions every once in a while. Basie would let her purr for a couple of choruses, look out from under his trademark captain's cap, and lift his little finger. BAM! Eighteen men precisely together, fortissimo.And then a gorgeous whisper.
Anyone that would take over this band as leader, then, would have to maintain the Basie-mobile and also keep it heading down new roads.
Frank Foster is a great choice of leader for the band. He's been with the band forever. He's an old fox of an MC. He wrote Shiny Stockings which is one of the sexiest tunes ever written, and is a smokin' stompin' bitch of a tenor player. Proof of the latter came on the "ballad" (Ha!) All the Things You Are, which plunged into be-bop double-time midway, and Frank was suddenly dancing on the hood of the Basiemobile.
He literally danced and rapped, too, but still to a swing beat. Certain band members seemed tired or perfunctory in their solos, but no matter, because, to the delight of the crowd, the blues was played a lot---homage to their Kansas City roots-- and so was April in Paris, replete with the crowd calling out for "one more time" and the band, jumping on the encore, powered by the redoubtably grooving drums of Duffy Jackson.
The crowd liked Duffy too, screaming for his name or for a drum solo, or some acknowledgement of their appreciation. He obliged, thundering and blustering, on Summertime, a refreshingly up, bouyant version.
Carl "Ace" Carter seemed to have no difficulty with the laconic Basie piano style, which is mostly silence with a few telling comments. Carter went beyond mere imitation, offering longer, boppish lines for contrast. It's a good thing he was as happening as he was, because the piano often drowned out the band in the bass-heavy mix, with the saxes lost somewhere in the twilight.
Carmen Bradford's solidly contoured vocals on Gee, Baby Ain't I Good To You brought another Basie alumnus to mind, singer Joe Williams, who is still going strong, thankfully. She was also a powerful blues stylist, and audible too!
The band in tougher times had to put out albums of Beatle songs in order to survive, yet in the 90-minute set, their most modern number was Monk's Round MIdnight played sweetly by Johnny Williams on bass clarinet (a perfect instrumental choice for that somber melody.)
As for the groove reinforcement. Cleveland Eaton on bass supplied it, and also a crowd-pleasing all-energy no-brains solo on Goodtime Blues nodded to Wade in the Water for a couple of choruses, thereby being true to his tradition-- the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
After the concert, I asked Doug Miller, first tenor sax, if he felt any pressure in replacing the late great Eric Dixon, who was an original Basieite. He said,"No. None. I mean, I would be doing an injustice to myself if I didn't make my own statement, follow my own muse."
So be it. And even though I miss Freddie Green, the man who is said to have taken one 8-bar solo in 35 years, Basie's reliable rhythm guitarist who allowed the band to luxuriate behind the beat, and I miss the Count himself at the keyboard, "splanking" happily-- the band still swaggers, like the soundtrack to a provocative walk.
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