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The swing revival currently going gangbusters in clubs and ballrooms across the nation is generating a new audience for swing music, both contemporary and classic. These new-found fans, sensing something big is to be found behind the music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and other favorites of the current scene, have started to seek out the originals, the roots of the music. Inevitably, their search leads them to the Count Basie Orchestra.
Something similar happened in the 1980s, when the era's young lions introduced a new audience to the hard-bop era heroes they emulated. Today's swing bands - Royal Crown Revue, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin' Daddies - are sending new fans to Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and beyond to the birth of swing and Basie. After all, it was in the Basie bands of the '30s, in front of the dance floor at Kansas City's Reno Club, that the jazz rhythm section blossomed and what came to be forever known as "Basie swing" developed.
The reemerging popularity of swing in all its forms is just one of the factors in the recent ascendancy of the Count Basie Orchestra. Another is the strength of the ensemble itself. After back-to back-Grammy awards for 1997 and 1998, the Basie band, directed during the last four years by Grover Mitchell, is crackling with musical vibrancy. With drummer Butch Miles back at the center of the rhythm section, the band has roared through a 1999 itinerary that lists multiple trips to Europe, two weeks in Japan and stops in such exotic locations as Istanbul and Brazil. But the orchestra is most busy here in the U.S. with performances in towns running the gamut from Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta to Fort Wayne, Lubbock, Savannah, Worster and Morgantown.
Maybe that's one reason the orchestra sounds so good on this latest recording Swing Shift. Another is the first-rate writing of Allyn Ferguson and Bob Ojeda. Ferguson is the noted arranger whose pen was central in Sarah Vaughan's 1981 meeting with the Basie Orchestra's horn section as well as last year's Grammy Award-winning Count Plays Duke. His seven new compositions and three standard arrangements embody the classic sound of Basie swing yet reflect the harmonic depth that Ferguson has brought to his writing since his days with Stan Kenton - full of color, contrast and what can only be called artistry in rhythm.
This theme of modernism within the tradition (no contradiction in today's Basie band) is continued by Ojeda, one of the group's trumpeters who has written for everyone from Lionel Hampton to George Benson. While Ojeda's pieces glisten with sleek harmonic touches and rhythmic shifts, they nonetheless read as authentic pages from the Basie omnibus, both in their spirit and the crafted spaces they arrange for soloists.
Add to this mix Grover Mitchell, a leader with deep roots in the orchestra's history and long associations with its founder. A lyrical lead trombonist and soloist in the tradition of Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, Mitchell worked with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton briefly before joining Basie in 1962. Absent from the band in the '70s, Mitchell returned in 1980, remaining until Basie's death in 1984. Of the three directors who have been at the helm since Basie's passing (Thad Jones and Frank Foster were the others), Mitchell seems best able to project the Basie spirit, to both his band members and audiences. "I knew from the moment I joined this band I was going to lead it someday," he says. "I can't tell you why, but I knew it was my destiny."
Under Mitchell, the band has returned to its hallmarks: swing, precision, and above all, a focus on the ensemble. The current aggregation has its share of great soloists, but Mitchell has stressed the totality of sound and interplay among musicians. He is aided in this endeavor by the remarkable continuity of personnel that continues to connect past to the present in the band. There are five permanent members in the current band who played under Count Basie's personal leadership: trombonist Bill Hughes, who joined in 1956, John Williams, Butch Miles, Kenny Hing and Clarence Banks. They are part of the musical DNA that is replicating the Basie spirit for present and future members who never played under Basie himself.
This "guarding of the flame" is the same mission that has driven Count Basie Enterprises, the administrative operation behind the Basie Orchestra which has guided its growth and protected its integrity in the post-Basie years. "Our role has been to keep the Basie band a living, breathing, growing orchestra," says Aaron Woodward III, CEO of Basie Enterprises and an uncompromising purist regarding all matters concerning Count Basie. "Above all, we want to keep the music true to the Basie way."
Today, the Basie band is bringing generations of fans together as never before. Young audiences who've heard their favorite neo-swing band play "One O'clock Jump," now sit or dance side-by-side with veteran fans who've spent a lifetime cherishing Basie's 1937 recording of the same tune. This multi-generational appeal is what sets the Basie band apart from the current crop of swing bands. Swing music is not a fad, and it is no passing fancy with the Basie Orchestra. Rather, it is a living art form with an esteemed tradition and a history that spans most of our waning century.
The Count Basie Orchestra continues to build new fans the old fashioned way - by hitting the road, meeting its audiences and playing its music, night after night. It has managed to fuse contemporary sensibilities with its own traditions, in part because it is a genuine "working band" with the esprit de corps that comes from facing its listeners nightly - not a rehearsal unit playing for the recreation of its members or a studio unit that comes together occasionally to make a record. The Basie band is that rarest of all musical ensembles today: a full-time touring jazz orchestra. Night in and night out, they let audiences experience firsthand that miraculous combination of power and grace that only exists when 19 jazz musicians stand shoulder to shoulder and call themselves a big band.
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