A Swinging History Lesson

Pianist William “Count” Basie took the helm of this band in the early thirties after the demise of the original band leader, Benny Moten. Already known for a particular Chicago style swing, the band founded its reputation on the “riff’ – or simple, repetitive but catchy motif that could be modified or even completely re-invented on a nightly basis, and later on the presence of soloists such as Lester Young, and relationships with singers like Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra.

The modern band has changed directorship yet again, with trombonist Grover Mitchell now in charge. Largely made up of younger players with a few veterans from the Count’s days, it still retains this hard-swinging, riff­ oriented quality and a couple of star soloists.

The Dewan Filharmonik exploded with the first song “Blues On Top” – a hard-swinging blues which featured the very Basie-ish piano of the young Tony Suggs. Visually a few generations removed from his predecessor complete with dreadlocks and very stylish modern tailoring, Suggs is nevertheless indebted to Basie with his spare and rhythmic style. The number also presented one of the more dynamic soloists, trumpeter “Scotty” Barnhart who again kept to a style very much befitting the style of the band (complete with plunger mute), though he later gave occasional cause to believe him capable of a much more contemporary edge.

The second tune, a fast Quincy Jones chart called “Dum, Dum” had the two tenor saxophonists Doug Miller and Doug Lawrence trading blows, though neither really got a chance to develop much – again respectfully adhering to the style. This was followed by a great Frank Foster arrangement of Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” which featured some excellent sax-section writing towards the end.

The next couple of numbers were swinging arrangements by Thad Jones and Ernie Wilkins. It was becoming clear that the tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence was the real star soloist here – largely because out of all the younger members of the band he seemed most comfortable within the stylistic setting. This is not to detract from his magnificence as a musician – his sound and phrasing are muscular but elegant and his solos are never in a hurry but always exciting. No small feat to be outstanding in a band this good.

The vocalist Jamie Davis joined the band for renditions of the standards “Autumn Leaves” and “My Romance” and then capped it with a real swinging blues: “Don’t Need Nobody”. He has an engaging personality and a voice a little reminiscent of the great Johnny Hartman. The set was rounded out by “The Drum Thing” which inevitably featured the excellent drummer Butch Miles – a man very much in the Buddy Rich inspired big-band-drummer school but with plenty of personality.

The second set opened with the big band staple “Shiny Stockings”, another classic Foster arrangement and

continued through a selection of favourites featuring the same stars until Davis joined them once again to do Blue Skies, My One And Only Love and Come Fly With Me. The band finished with another Ernie Wilkins chart simply titled “Basie” which was performed at a reckless speed and left the crowd on their feet.

The band is an extremely well-oiled machine. For us here in Malaysia to hear ensemble playing at this level is nothing short of a revelation. The swing, precision and pitching of all horns was such that at times the textures were reminiscent of a small electric band using modern keyboards. The soloists generally got little space to really develop anything but then I guess that is all part of the style. They have an audience that want to hear that sound, and whether it’s still artistically relevant or not, you can’t fail to admit that this band has a large chunk of that essence that is a little more than a century old – which we call “jazz”.

Greg Lyons is a jazz player himself. His web-site is http://www.geocities.com/gregblyons.


First Published: 30.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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