Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Down With the Count

By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  It's a legacy that is synonymous with American music of the '30s and '40s: the Count Basie Orchestra. The original incarnation was once-in-a-lifetime--a collection of some of the finest musical minds in jazz, sharing the stage, trading licks, simultaneously teaching and learning from each other all in a format that was at once gloriously spontaneous and brilliantly framed in a level of ensemble perfection not since matched. It was magic, indeed, but the sort of kinetic magic that took on a life of its own, culminating in what is known as the Basie sound.

And while the original members of the orchestra--save for five who played under Basie's leadership in the '50s and '60s (Basie himself died in 1984)--have departed variously, it's the essence of the sound that Basie built that lives on even today. Currently led by conductor/trombonist Grover Mitchell, the Count Basie Orchestra have continued to record and give command performances for nearly seven decades with a revolving door of world-class musicians. During his tenure, Mitchell has strived to maintain the cornerstones of Basie's original inception: swing, precision and ensemble playing. Not an easy task when one considers that the current line-up includes 20 chairs, each occupied by a master soloist.

The music is drawn from the extensive Count Basie Orchestra repertoire, including, according to Mitchell, "... treasures in the Basie book that haven't been played for years." In a sense, the tours are a trip down memory lane. But for many in audiences all over the world, the Big Band offers the first glimpse of what the music--particularly in the midst of a swing revival--was supposed to sound like. Either way, hearing them live is an invaluable lesson in American culture and heritage.


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