There's nothing to make you yearn for the good ol' days of music quite like a 19-piece jazz orchestra - it represents such a luxury of sound and style. The Count Basie Orchestra, who are celebrating their 80th anniversary this year, are a grand specimen of a sadly bygone era. Imagine being able to roll out to a club on a Friday evening and spend the night dancing, swaying, and swinging to a perfect cocoon of sound, created by five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, a piano, drums, guitar, and double bass, and the impressive pipes of one singer.
As it was, there was no dancing when they graced the stage at the Civic in Auckland last night, more like some gentle foot-tapping, and subtle head jiggling from the mostly silver-haired crowd, who were quite content to enjoy the sizzling blues and soulful ballads from their sumptuous red seats. The sit-down nature of the Civic gave the whole evening a touch of formality and politeness that meant it never quite cracked into fireworks. But there was no faulting the supreme abilities and sheer class of every player on stage.
It was a relatively blues-heavy set list, delving through different arrangers, composers, and decades, and alternating between energised up-tempo numbers and swoonier slow tunes, with band leader Scotty Barnhart providing knowledgeable introductions to each, and giving each band member their due as they took the spotlight, nattily turned out in grey suits with red handkerchiefs in the pockets.
Every single solo was impressive, and there was something for every jazz fan in the mix, but a few stood out for their sheer electricity. Barnhart's trumpet solo on Who Me? was a crackling display of technique and creativity; Blues in Hoss' Flat gave two performers a chance to shine with Mark Williams' sliding trombone solo full of beautiful soul, and Andre Rice light as a feather on trumpet; Dave Gibson's explosive drumming on Basie was exhilarating; the tenor saxophone solo by Doug Lawrence on I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face was inventive and tender; and when baritone saxophonist Roger Glenn jumped up for a sophisticated flute solo on From One To Another no one could stop grinning.
Of course vocalist Carmen Bradford, in her incredible gold-sequined gown, was a wonderful injection of sass, particularly on heartfelt numbers I've Got A Right To Sing The Blues and You Don't Know Me, and there were several tunes where the ensemble dynamic really jumped up a level. The trumpet section (who were clearly having the most fun) throwing and shaking their mutes in response to the saxophone chorus in Duke Ellington's In A Mellow Tone was a delight, while the dynamic interplay in Back To The Apple felt truly celebratory.
In a week where Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock are also in town, the Count Basie Orchestra proved the strength of a top-tier ensemble, because despite not being household names, every band member is a gifted soloist, and even though Count Basie himself is no longer around, their combined powers make them more than worthy of his name.
Who: The Count Basie Orchestra
Where and when: Civic Theatre in Auckland on Thursday May 28.