When the Count Basie Orchestra concert at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts was cancelled for the COVID shutdown in March 2020, it was a bitter pill. When the cloud lifted, Soraya director Thor Steingraber declared that the match would no longer be postponed—the Basie band was one of his first fall bookings. Steingraber even enriched the concert, by adding vocalist Lizz Wright, in a nod to the band’s history with Ella Fitzgerald.
The Basieites hit the ground running on the Soraya stage November 17. They were crisp and sure in their ensemble playing, and the soloists were exciting. They opened with a blazing version of Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” Leader Scotty Barnhart’s manipulation of dynamics–from way up to way down at a very fast tempo—was more than a little impressive. Doug Lawrence and Doug Miller carried forth the band’s 86-year-old tradition of tenor saxophone dust-ups at the microphones with brio. Nasty cup mute trumpet solos by Andre Rich (thirty-seven years the band) on “Blues in Hoss Flat” and Barnhart on “Saddles” upheld the band’s historic sting in its swing.
Led by pianist William ‘Count’ Basie (1904-1984), the orchestra institutionalized the 4/4 swing of Kansas City in jazz. The post-Basie band has kept the classic repertory in play, but added new charts—neither of which are treated as museum pieces. And it would be foolish to ignore the harmonically expanded language of the larger music. Pianist Glen Pearson dealt out plenty of Basie’s own tinkle ‘n splank on “I Needs to Be Beed With” by Quincy Jones, but displayed impressive ten-fingered technique elsewhere. Time and again, the players—like alto saxophonist David Glasser and drummer Robert Boone Jr., to name only two–indicated that they have formidable musical abilities.
Lizz Wright stuck largely to Gershwin songs, most of them at slow tempos. Never known to be a swing-based vocalist, the link to Ella was achieved through material, not phrasing or rhythm. She acquitted herself reasonably well on rhythm tunes. Her estimable sound, warm and dark, could be savored on ballads (“Embraceable You,” “Who Cares”) and bounces (“Give Me the Simple Life” and “Love You Madley”). But when she cut loose on “My Man’s Gone” (from “Porgy and Bess”), that rich sound spread over the Soraya like a canopy. On that, Wright’s majesty matched that of the Basieites—up on their hind legs for the venerable whiplash of “April in Paris.” Both were magnificent moments.
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.