Ella and Basie, reunited by Basie band & Lizz Wright at The Soraya

Lizz Wright, Basie orchestra

ed. note: This story by music writer Kirk Silsbee, commissioned and originally published by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Arts, has been excerpted with permission.

The Count Basie Orchestra band has not just outlived the big band era, it has thrived. This is no ghost band; its last album, “All About That Basie” (Concord Jazz 2018), was Grammy-nominated.  And no other contemporary jazz orchestra administers the 4/4 Kansas City swing like the Basie-ites. As it was under the leadership of William ‘Count’ Basie (1904-1984), the Orchestra is Mecca for hopeful jazz arrangers everywhere.

Music lovers across the board will get a taste of Basie’s special touch next Wednesday, November 17, with The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra: The Music of Ella Fitzgerald” at The Soraya.

Basie himself was a great musical editor. Neal Hefti’s “Lil Darlin’” was submitted as a medium bounce. Basie wisely saw it as a ballad and turned the number into a jazz standard. “A lot of writers send us charts,” says trumpeter and leader Scotty Barnhart. “But not everyone knows how to write for us. The band can tell within the first six or eight bars if a tune will work. Once we agree on a submission, we may play with the dynamics, designate a crescendo, or phrase ahead or behind the beat—all to put the Basie stamp on it.”

The glorious Basie history has given jazz countless music milestones: Lester Young’s float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee tenor sax solos, the Puckish trumpet of Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, the juggernaut ensemble swing of “Dickie’s Dream,” Joe Williams’ urbane blues singing, and the iconic Basie-led “All-American Rhythm Section.” Though the personnel has changed over the years, those values can be heard in the present-day Count Basie Orchestra. 

The Count Basie Orchestra has also been a haven for iconic jazz singers. Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday were the first Basie vocalists, followed by Helen Humes, Melvin Moore, Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Bill Henderson, Marlena Shaw, Leon Thomas, Dennis Rowland, and longtime vocalist, Carmen Bradford. “Everybody wanted to sing with Basie,” says Barnhart.

Lizz Wright has some history with the Basie band—at Chicago’s Symphony Center, the Apollo Theatre, and Jazz Aspen. The Soraya brings them together in their most intensive Ella Fitzgerald program to date. When their schedules permitted, Ella performed with the Basie band, and to great acclaim. She was the last word in swinging vocal jazz, and she used the foursquare beat of the band as her own private playground for her rhythmic and scatted maneuvers. The “Ella and Basie” album (Verve 1963) has long been considered a classic.

Ella Fitzgerald is a prime source of inspiration for gospel rooted Lizz Wright. “She’s a very active muse in my life,” says Wright. “There are times when I immerse myself in her music, because she epitomizes what I strive for. Ella was the musicians’ singer; she was fully engaged with the songs, the band, and the audience.”

Wright’s dark, rich voice luxuriates in slow tempos. She can fill the air with her spreading contralto like few of her contemporaries. “Ella was a great communicator,” says Wright. “She made sure she told the song’s story to the audience. But she could have fun with a lyric and find humor in it. I love that she walked both sides of the street like that.”    

The COVID-19 shutdown was especially hard on SoCal jazz venues. As performing spots closed, the quarantine also interrupted The Soraya’s ascendance as an important jazz destination. The promise of the upcoming Spring Jazz Festival (mainstage concerts with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Gregory Porter; and Jazz Club concerts with Gerald Clayton, Gretchen Parlato and Harold Lopez-Nussa) signals that The Soraya is swinging again in full force.

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra: The Music of Ella Fitzgerald | The Soraya | Wednesday Nov 17

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