If only Wynton Marsalis could have been in The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
If only Rudresh Mahanthappa could have met Charlie Parker.
If only Pat Metheny could have sat in with Wes Montgomery.
If only Kurt Elling could have sung with The Count Basie Orchestra.
But wait a minute. Kurt Elling does sing with The Count Basie Orchestra. On All About That Basie, Kurt Elling, when he sings “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” revisits the joy of Sinatra’s work with Basie—documented on Sinatra-Basie, It Might As Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands. Respectfully channeling the spirit of those recordings, Elling performs with straightforward attention to each word. Effortlessly, Elling incorporates the original’s direct-to-the-heart crooning and their inherent swing that marked the success of those albums, even as the recognizable baritone stylings remain Elling’s during the song’s brief inclusion on Concord Jazz’s new album.
If only Count Basie could have adapted in big-band arrangements the songs of talent like, say, Justin Timberlake, Prince, Beyonce or Adele.
But The Count Basie Orchestra does play Adele’s “Hello” on All About That Basie. The performance isn’t an instrumental repetition of the way Adele sings the hit. Rather, it possesses the cohesive movement trademarked by the Orchestra over its now-83 years of existence. The tightness of the entire orchestra’s sound as it plays the melody—and the breakout into eloquent solos without ostentation by trumpeter Kris Johnson and pianist Bobby Floyd (eminently qualified to perform the Basie parts after five years with the Orchestra)—suggest the high level of musicianship offered by the Orchestraom 2018.
The Count Basie Orchestra didn’t stop performing, touring or recording after Basie’s passing in 1984. Its unmistakable sound, whose positive approach made listeners’ lives a little happier and whose infectious swing brought listeners closer together, remains up to this day through a series of leaders, including Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes, Dennis Mackrel and, now, Scotty Barnhart. Proof of the everlasting appeal of Basie’s music, the orchestra’s popularity continues undiminished. As a celebration of everything associated with Basie’s music, All About That Basie includes an array of well-known performers whose mission that they chose to accept was a representation of Basie’s absorption of and adaptability to changing music styles through much of the twentieth century and into the millennium.
The unsurprising characteristic of all eleven tracks of the album is the consistency of the orchestra’s sound as it makes each song its own.
The most famous example would be “April in Paris,” inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. That song’s matchless arrangement forever recalls The Count Basie Orchestra. That association of the song with Basie is visually documented by Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, which unforgettably and hilariously showed the Orchestra performing the song in a desert, Basie greeting Clevon Little, decked out with Gucci saddlebags, as he stands from the polished white grand piano. Shrewdly, instead of merely replaying that same arrangement, heard many many times over the years, Barnhart’s version on All About That Basie features the Hammond B-3 organ. Joey DeFrancesco plays as a solo the melody and a chorus of improvisation backed by the signature trombone phrase, as well as by the full Orchestra, including its One More Time (but not the One More Once).
The 2018 celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’s collaboration with Basie features Carmen Bradford, whom Basie selected as a singer for the original Orchestra. What makes this performance even more significant is the fact that Benny Carter’s arrangement of “Honeysuckle Rose” had never before been recorded. In its premier performance, Bradford sings with joy and ever-present vitality that distinguished the original performance of the song on Ella and Basie! Channeling the essence of Ella with her infallible sense of swing and scatting, Bradford is entirely comfortable with the power of the band behind her. Indeed, she seems to be energized by it.
Part of the appeal of The Count Basie Orchestra is its dynamics. Its containment of power, as the band’s sections blend a broad spectrum of harmonization until its full strength is realized, never fails to fulfill audience expectations. Barnhart’s addition to the Basie Orchestra’s repertoire, “Tequila,” certainly lives up to that reputation. Muted trumpets, conguero Luisito Quintero and guitarist Will Matthews introduce the danceability of the composition. And then trumpeter Jon Faddis comes in, initially understated in Dizzy terms, before moving chorus by chorus into even more combustible territory. His medium-volume start evolves into an exciting finish of unrestrained might, an open trumpet section’s is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorem? Volume, and Faddis’s stratospheric high notes.
All About That Basie recollects the band leader’s early years as Jamie Davis pays a vocalist’s tribute to his respected influence, Jimmy Rushing, whose Kansas City singing experience included years with Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Bennie Moten’s band before joining Basie’s. Accompanied by the band’s shuffle beat, with licks provided by trumpeter Barnhart and saxophonist Rickey Woodard, baritone blues singer Davis engages audiences with direct appeal, telling stories through singing, and then moving into a spoken plea for listeners to “come back to me.”
Similarly, Take Six re-interprets the mid-fifties Basie/Joe Williams hit, “Everyday I Have the Blues,” with impeccable Gene Puerling-like harmonies as the Basie band, all the while, provides the accented punches and a pulsating irresistible swing. Wycliffe Gordon makes memorable the Orchestra’s new arrangement of Earth Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” not as a replication of the melody, but as a plunger-muted, trombone-talking takeoff into highest-quality instrumental adaptation.
Yet another highlight of the album is Stevie Wonder’s participation with the Orchestra in performing harmonica on, but not singing, his own song, “My Cherie Amour.” The musical palette for the arrangement already existed on albums like The Atomic Mr. Basie, which included Neal Hefti’s inimitable arrangements. Except for the all-out back-beat swing of the track’s final choruses, Wonder plays harmonica throughout over the “Li’l Darlin’”-like unrushed, unified sound, unmistakable as Basie’s.
As a drummer not only with The Count Basie Orchestra, but also with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder, Concord Records producer Gregg Field recognized through personal experience the significance of Basie as a musical icon in American music. If only Basie, who developed the orchestra’s distinctive sound, were still recording. But his Orchestra is. Along with Barnhart, who has kept The Count Basie Orchestra’s vitality undiminished, Field was made available yet another reminder of the gentle force of the Orchestra that has endeared it to audiences for decades.