The Count Basie Orchestra came to town last Monday on the heels of a wonderful new album, the Duke Ellington tribute Count Plays Duke (Mama), and turned back the clock with three red-hot sets at North Beach's 7th Note Showclub. They also came to prove that not only is swing music alive and well, it's also a much different sound than what the recent spate of faddish neo-swing bands are playing. The Orchestra's performance was so rich and swinging it was almost enough to make the discerning listener a bit sad, because, even with all the swing hype, this type of swing isn't being played anymore by anybody else. Groups that claim to stalk the same terrain, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, turn out to be miles away from the genuine article once you've heard the real thing.
The Count Basie Orchestra is now directed by trombonist Grover Mitchell, himself first a member of the Basie band back in 1962; he inherited the director's baton from Frank Foster, who took it from Thad Jones, who took over from Basie himself after the Count's death in 1984. And while several of the Orchestra's members signed on recently (the stunning alto saxophonist Brad Leali is the youngest at 23), many have played alongside Basie at one time or another. Under Mitchell's leadership, the band has dug out many of the original arrangements by writers like Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, and Quincy Jones that helped make the Basie band such a powerhouse in its heyday in the '40s and '50s. All of which means that at the 7th Note, the Orchestra was a living, breathing link to the golden age of big bands; it's exciting to see bona fide swing still being played with such power and precision.
Authenticity aside, the main difference between the Basie Orchestra and the revivalists who pack 'em into clubs large and small is rhythm. The Basie Orchestra swings with what seems like effortless authority, and the basic pulse of the music, even on the tunes with a straight-ahead blues shuffle feel, is more subtle. Riding the strength of its masterful drummer, Butch Miles (who returned to the group last year after a brief stint during the late '70s), the Orchestra's swing has much more syncopation and intricacy than its younger siblings, putting a forceful, one-two beat right up front and maintaining it. The Orchestra also has Will Matthews' perfect Freddie Green-style guitar accompaniment to fatten things up. (Green, Basie's guitarist in the '40s and '50s, virtually patented the straight-eighth-notes style that has been at the backbeat of every swing band since.) Matthews only soloed briefly on a couple of blues numbers late in the evening, but his constant swinging pulse defined the group's sound from the opening number, a slamming rendition of Green's own "Corner Pocket."
Then, of course, there's the texture. The Basie Orchestra numbers 17 players, not counting Mitchell, who sometimes picks up his trombone but mostly walks around and conducts. But there were times when they sounded like a hundred, as in passages of "Warm Breeze" when lines bounced back and forth from the saxes to the trumpets, and countermelodies snuck underneath Robert Ojeda's brilliant trumpet solo. Horn backgrounds erupted out of nowhere, sometimes sounding first in the trumpets, then the reeds, then the trombones, as long-held tones provided uncommon bits of color. Those creatively volatile backgrounds inspired uniformly excellent work from all the Orchestra's soloists, who ranged in style from Ojeda's classic sound to Leali's relative experimentation. The band was also masterful in backing up singer Chris Murrell on his featured tunes, providing some colorful interaction with his scatting on "There Will Never Be Another You" and gorgeously lush backdrops during "Georgia on My Mind."
At other times, the Orchestra sounded so tight and unified it seemed like one musician playing 17 different instruments at once. On a thrilling version of Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," the four-member saxophone section played an entire solo in perfect unison, backed by the shifting harmonies of the rest of the band. The result was otherworldly, and also a reminder of just how "out" a lot of this music was in the first place. One of the more overlooked aspects of the Basie legacy is that he was able to get a wide audience to embrace and dance to what was at times some profoundly weird music.
But if it still seems weird at times, it's also exhilarating. Aside from giving several couples the chance to practice their new swing dance moves to a live band, the Orchestra offered listeners a taste of what a thrill it must have been to regularly go out and hear big bands that played with such skill. In this light, it isn't hard to see the appeal of the new wave of swing acts. But it's debatable whether or not the Basie Orchestra itself stands to benefit from the current swing revival. The 7th Note, while far from empty, sadly held fewer people than regularly fill the various retro haunts every weekend. This could have been because the new generation of swing listeners isn't aware of neo-swing's debt to the Basie Orchestra, or hasn't heard how profoundly swinging the Orchestra still is. It also could have been the $35 cover charge, or (drum roll please) it could maybe have been that the new swing isn't really swing at all, just a pale imitation for people who aren't interested in the real thing anyway.
Which leaves the listener with two ways to protect him- or herself from the new swing fraud. Either invest in a new Basie Orchestra album (or perhaps an older one like 1956's April in Paris). Or, the next time you're jumpin' and jivin' to a band playing rockabilly-inflected jump blues and straining to be more '40s-than-thou, have yourself a great time. Just stop calling it swing.