There are a number of things that should be on every music lovers bucket list. Experiencing a Basie Orchestra gig live is one of them. This band has the history of modern music in its DNA and after 83 years on the road, they are in their prime. Goodman was always referred to as the ‘king of swing’ but in my view Basie was a better contender for that title. His brand of swing had it’s nascent stirrings in 1927 when Basie joined Bennie Moten. When that band folded he took many of the musicians with him to form the Basie Band in 1935. The Basie band possessed a unique sound, fueled by a nine-piece line up featuring legendary greats like Lester Young, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and Walter Page. Johnny Hammond heard them in 1936 and invited them to New York where at his suggestion they expanded to become a thirteen piece jazz Orchestra. At this time they were joined by Freddie Green and others. Skillfully, they incorporated the nimbleness of the Kansas City small ensemble swing-feel into a new sound.
When we listened to the Orchestra in Auckland a few nights ago, every iteration of their 83 years was touched upon. Early and contemporary charts, the gorgeous highly arranged charts from Neil Hefti, Frank Foster and Quincey Jones ‘second testament’ era, some newly arranged material, plus a fabulous tribute to the Basie/Amstrong/Fitzgerald collaborations. Giving added weight to that celebration was the inclusion of vocalist Carmen Bradford. Bradford was originally hired by Basie himself and so she has a long association with the orchestra. Hers is a big voice and an instrument perfectly suited to Ella’s songbook. She is a Jazz vocalist in the traditional sense and it is no wonder that Basie gave her a shot. At times she sang duets with various of the band members, but it was when she and Scotty Barnhart got together that the sparks really flew.
Barnhart, a two times Grammy winner is the musical director of the Basie orchestra and a featured soloist. His Louis Armstrong tribute captured not just ‘Pops’ but the great man’s contemporaries, an often overlooked cohort who deserve to be examined more often than they are. Modern trumpet styles are a long way removed from the street rich dirty growls and blues-infused storytelling of those times. A sound which always communicated a world of raw emotion and deep humanity. As the tribute tunes moved through the era, we heard everything from the lighter-hearted ‘A Tisket a Tasket’ (a traditional nursery rhyme), to Gershwin classics like ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ or ‘Summertime’. Some of the numbers predated the Basie bands like ‘Struttin With Some Barbecue’ (Armstrong 1927) while others were more contemporary like the gorgeous arrangement of Stevie Wonders ‘Ma Cherie Amour’.
Among the most enjoyable moments were the sensitive trio rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ (Herman) and the ever wonderful and always compelling Hefti arrangement of ‘April in Paris’ (Duke/Harburg). Doug Lawrence the tenor soloist astounded as always (I was sitting next to a young tenor player and his jaw dropped in amazement during Lawrence’s solos). These musicians are so tight that an atomic blast couldn’t separate them and they swing like crazy. I guess 84 years on the road will do that. I have seen this orchestra before and with any luck, I will see it again and again. There is only one thing you can say in summing up a Basie Orchestra performance; “ONE MORE TIME – please”.
The concert took place at the Aotea Centre, Auckland City, New Zealand, July 30, 2018