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Doin' Basie's Thing: As the third director of the Count Basie Orchestra since Basie died in 1984, Grover Mitchell has earned the group new respect--and a pair of back-to-back Grammys.

Basic Basie

Led by Grover Mitchell, the Count Basie Orchestra lives up to a monumental legacy by sticking with the swing of things for Cocoanut concert

By Rob Pratt

THE ARCHETYPE is instantly recognizable: a big, brassy intro, drummer setting up the ensemble with a tom roll and a snare crack, then the horns hitting a full-stack chord--14 voices at fortissimo, a solid wall of sound with enough intensity to blur vision.

The note pops a few milliseconds beyond the upbeat, just tardy enough to manipulate the subconscious of everyone in the room, make their stomachs brace for the vibration and hold for a split second of anticipation before the note rolls out from the stage and through the audience like a shock wave.

The riff implodes just as quickly as it ripples outward, leaving only piano, bass, drums and a relentless guitar comping on every beat. A three-note piano figure. A simple chord for color. The rhythm section keeps time like a precision stopwatch. Melody sneaks in on a chatty saxophone riff. The band goes around again, this time with trumpets and trombones interjecting "uh-huhs" and "oh, yeahs" into the conversation.

The tune builds and builds and builds. It's a sound impossible to mistake.

'THE INCOMPARABLE Count Basie and His Internationally Famous Orchestra: The Most Explosive Force in Jazz," says the poster. Left over from the last time William "Count" Basie made the gig for a Cocoanut Grove date, the poster was a gift from a co-worker who handed it to me when she found out I loved big bands. She had worked as a barback at the Grove that night in 1983, and though she didn't have any idea who Count Basie was, she lined up to have him sign the poster, which had gathered dust in her garage and which now hangs in my home music studio as a prized possession.

That's the way Count Basie affects big-band musicians. His style is part of the catechism for virtually all budding big-band instrumentalists. For the truly faithful, Basie swing is a lifelong quest that takes on the trappings of a spiritual journey. Big-band players don't just collect musicianship and a deep sense of rhythm from learning to play Basie-style. They also collect stories and artifacts--personal expressions of the transcendent power of the Basie band's music.

Swing-trombone player and big-band composer Neal Finn, who no longer resides in Santa Cruz but who led the Union Dues Big Band, which played monthly at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center during the early '90s, once told my Cabrillo College jazz-theory class of his crystalline Basie moment. The big band he played with on a cruise ship was literally blown away in mid-set one day by the band on a ship across the terminal. He and his bandmates quickly realized that it was the Basie group--post-Basie but still going strong. Finn and the players in the band on his ship put their instruments away and listened for the rest of the afternoon.

Trumpeter Robin Anderson, who leads a big band that plays two Wednesdays a month at the Crow's Nest, tells of hearing the Basie band in Monterey a couple of years ago. Current band director Grover Mitchell led the group in an astounding four sets of dance-oriented numbers from the greatest big-band library in the world. At the end of the night, the whole band still played as if it was just getting started--a moment, Anderson says, when he realized that the Count Basie Orchestra has a superhuman power and stamina.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the Basie band has held a heroic stature among big bands. Emerging from the Kansas City-based Benny Moten Orchestra, Basie's band by the late '30s had developed an unmistakable sound with drummer Jo Jones' sizzling high-hat, saxman Lester Young's pastel-like approach, Buck Clayton's strutting trumpet and the bandleader's spare, plinking piano style.

Refining the style prevalent in Kansas City at the time, the band developed the musical hallmarks that characterize the Basie band even today: a blues-based sound fleet of foot from a rhythm section stepping lightly but surely and hypnotic from loose, riff-based arrangements that encourage soloists to stretch out.

The Basie band of that era served as the arena in which a pair of titans faced each other in a legendary "cutting contest"--two saxophone icons, the yin and yang of the instrument, playing chorus after chorus of blues to determine who's the best.

Legend has it that one night Young matched his pale, introspective style against Coleman Hawkins' deep-blue, gregarious sound at a run-down Kansas City after-hours joint. The crowd howled and stood on its feet as the band played and the saxophonists dueled until morning--and as dawn came, everybody called it a tie.

While World War II made superstars out of other swing bands like the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras, it diminished a band that during the late '30s and early '40s turned out for the Decca and Columbia labels what are still considered some of the best jazz recordings ever. Young left Basie's group in the early '40s. His stint in the Army during the war so affected him that by the end of the decade his playing was unfocused, and his personal life was foundering amid alcoholism and drug addiction. Basie never found a soloist to replace Young, going through a succession of saxmen in the '40s. Without the players and the chemistry that had made his band the best, Basie disbanded the group in 1950.

It was 1952 when CBS presented an all-star jazz concert on national TV, the only post-WWII time when Young rose to his former greatness. Resolving a long-standing estrangement with onetime close friend Billie Holiday, Young played a remarkable solo on Holiday's bluesy "Sweet and Mellow," a set of choruses so tender and apologetic that Holiday can be seen nodding in acknowledgment at the edge of the frame as Young plays.

Behind Young's saxophone, Basie's piano chords gently support his old friend the way a second stands behind a champion during an epic moment. It was a turning point: the definitive end of the swing era. It was also the year that Basie re-formed his band, opening the golden age of the Count Basie Orchestra. Oddly, Basie never had hits as big as "One O'Clock Jump" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside" with the re-formed band even as his influence and popular acclaim reached global proportions.

Count Him In: With landmark Kansas City groups in the '30s and '40s and his famed outfits of the '50s and '60s, pianist William 'Count' Basie created a big-band sound that has endured and even thrived long after his death.

AMID ALL OF THAT HISTORY, talking to trombone player Grover Mitchell, who has led the Count Basie Orchestra since 1995, is like talking to the pope. A fundamentalist pope. As keeper of the big-band swing dogma, Mitchell has taken the Count Basie Orchestra back to basics, rebuilding the rhythm section as the indisputable timepiece of the band.

He has also groomed more than a dozen hotshot horn players into an ensemble of clear, consistent vision and revived the group's collaborative tradition by working with composers Allyn Ferguson and Bob Ojeda to augment its extensive library with contemporary originals and arrangements. He shies away from defining his articles of faith, but he's quick to decry players who aren't faithful to the Basie sound.

"I can pretty much communicate what's supposed to happen," he says by phone from his New York City home. "And I know who should be and who shouldn't be in the band. When I started leading it, I had to get rid of several people who had drifted in and couldn't play this style. They couldn't listen to other people."

How does he tell who has the spirit and who doesn't?

"All you've got to do is hear it."

Evaluated by that test, Mitchell's Basie band is easily the finest big band in the world. Under Mitchell's leadership, the group has broken the mold of "ghost" bands carrying on the tradition of their departed founders by taking a giant leap into the present, earning back-to-back Grammys for 1997's Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and 1998's Count Plays Duke--a recording as remarkable for the band's vital and playful feel as for the striking contrast between the Basie and Ellington styles.

Ellington-centered big bands haven't fared nearly as well without their founder as the Count Basie Orchestra has. Immediately after Ellington's death, in 1974, son Mercer took the helm of the group but never managed to build it into more than a revival band. With the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has pursued the Ellington legacy with noteworthy results, but only reflectively, by revisiting the Ellington library and not by extending it.

The Basie band, however, unlike Ellington's orchestra, wasn't about the band-leader-as-composer. It was--and is--about a sound, one that evolved as new composers and arrangers added their finishing touches to a superstructure crafted in Kansas City during the '30s. Mitchell knows as much--"It's just a sound," he says whenever probed for some definitive statement about the elements of the Basie band's magic--and it's the cornerstone that has kept the landmark institution strong even as featured soloists and composers have come and gone.

THE BAND'S LATEST, last year's Swing Shift, is as good a big-band album as I've ever heard. While even Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra recently hit the road in part to explore the swing-revival phenomenon, Mitchell's Basie band doesn't bother with the trend. It doesn't have to. Even the proto-rock & roll style favored by latter-day zooter-swing bands derives from Basie's late-night Kansas City sessions at the Reno Club.

Swing Shift stacks up very favorably against the band's classic issues--like 1956's April in Paris or 1970's Basic Basie. But the album isn't without contemporary trappings. Ferguson's originals and arrangements, while thematically and idiomatically attentive to the Basie tradition, place airy contemporary harmonic cushions beneath soloists.

And although the ensemble hews closely to the dramatic phrasing approaches established by the likes of Marshall Royal and Harry "Sweets" Edison, the soloists at times display influences drawn from jazz traditions outside the Basie orbit.

Tension between big bands of the past and jazz of the present is a good thing for the Count Basie Orchestra--and for the future of big bands. Mitchell has managed to re-engineer the Basie machine for the 21st century, creating space within the format for the band to grow along with new movements in jazz. With the rigors of big-band playing gaining new respect among university music programs, the band is almost assured of top young instrumentalists well schooled in the Basie sound (high school and college jazz libraries are usually stocked with Nestico arrangements done for the Basie band). These newcomers can pick up the mantle when the half-dozen remaining players in the outfit who worked under Basie's leadership decide to retire.

The '90s swing resurgence, now on the wane, really only developed a big-band element to the extent neo-swing outfits drew their repertoire and inspiration from the big-band era. These bands, however, never developed the virtuosity and musical sophistication of the bands of the '30s and '40s.

But even though there's little popular fascination for genuine big bands, the sound is still prevalent. In Santa Cruz County, half a dozen such bands perform at least once a year, counting the student ensemble at Cabrillo College--and most towns have at least a "rehearsal band" in which top amateur and pro jazzers work out their skills in a big-band setting. A few groups nationally, notably ones run by composer Bob Florence, Yellowjackets reed player Bob Mintzer and Cabrillo College instructor Ray Brown, still strive to explore the place of big bands in contemporary jazz.

Even at the cutting edge of big-band playing, though, it all comes back to Basie. As if part of a mythic tradition, big-band players these days learn the form by starting with Basie swing--easy, laid-back and spirited--and through years of practice find a way to translate it into their own particular reality. And it's a living tradition, complete with heroes of the past who can still be admired through the 20th-century miracle of audio recording and champions of the present reinterpreting a uniquely American legacy.

The Count Basie Orchestra performs Friday (June 16) at 8pm at the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28.75 advance and $32.75 at the door. (831.423.2053)

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From the June 14-21, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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