The Count Basie Orchestra is a perfect paring with The Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club as it rises to its stated goal of being “The Copacabana of the mid-Atlantic.” The packed dinner crowd, including human rights leader, Julian Bond, seemed to enjoy every minute. Many seemed touched by the well-rehearsed and precise recreation of numbers written for the Count Basie Orchestra since the mid-1940’s.
William James “Count” Basie, born in 1904, began his own band in 1935. It has been a ghost band since his death in 1985. During Basie’s tenure, the orchestra incorporated several different styles motivated by moves and styles of the times. Perhaps most important is their very early move from “head music,” with riffs composed by band members and integrated into a song, to the use of many famous musicians to write and orchestrate their music.
New Music Director Scotty Barnhardt led with such aplomb that music sometimes seemed to flow directly from his fingers. The polished sound of the band was evident from the first number, “Hey, Jim,” to which Bob Lawrence contributed many fine solos on his tenor sax. He continued to be a prominent featured player throughout the evening.
“Shining Stars,” like many of the selections, was immediately recognizable, even if it’s title was not in instant recall. The interplay between music and personal memories of significant events was a constant for me. Perhaps the oddest was “April in Paris,” one of the most well-known numbers played by Basie’s Orchestra. My association is with the scene in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic movie, Blazing Saddles, when the full orchestra plays it in the middle of the desert as Sheriff Bart, played by Cleavon Little, rides by.
“Basie Power,” showcased the interplay of the rhythm section with the rest of the band, with bridges provided by Cleave Guyton’s piccolo. The rhythm section, with Marcus MacClaurine on bass, Will Matthews on guitar and Dave Gibson on drums, continued a historical reputation of one of big band’s best rhythm sections. Throughout the evening, MacClaurine’s bass was clearly heard; in many orchestras it is but a throbbing sound in the background.
“From One to Another” was introduced as the Orchestra’s “Mensa-level blues — as band members discover something new about it every time.” With prolonged complex work by bassist MacClaurine, I found it to be one of the most intriguing numbers of the night.
Vocalist Carmen Bradford brought power and soul to the night with several outstanding performances including “You Don’t Know Me,” and Sarah Vaughn’s version of “Ill Winds.”
If you missed this performance you can look forward to a visit next year as part of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of The Count Basie Orchestra It will be hard to catch them stateside anytime soon because they are leaving for tours of China, including Maccau, Thailand, and Japan next week. To tide you over, peruse the discography of the Orchestra’s more than 100 albums.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 20 minute intermission
The Count Basie Orchestra played on November 19, 2014 for one night only at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club – 7719 Wisconsin Avenue, in Bethesda, Maryland. A schedule of upcoming performances and ticket sales can be found online.