Los Angeles Music Review: A SWINGIN’ CHRISTMAS (The Count Basie Orchestra)

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by Tony Frankel on December 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Since its inception in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra has not just outlived the era in which it was spawned, but has remained a well-oiled machine of Big Band jazz, even after Basie’s death in 1984. After a bit of a sputter with sound issues and energy, their holiday concert last night sped down the highway of music like a solid gold Rolls Royce.

Count Basie Orchestra.

A Swingin’ Christmas was inadvertently a tribute to the great Neil Hefti, who charted some of the band’s greatest tunes. It took a little while for the orchestra and its new conductor Scotty Barnhart to pep it up and become accustomed to Disney Hall’s tricky acoustics, but they really came alive by selection number 5 of a 22-song set: Hefti’s “Cute.”  This 1950s Basie standard gave sweet show spots to alto saxophonist Cleave Guyton and his jazzy flute, and Clayton Cameron on drums (Jerry Lewis famously danced to this song in 1960’s Cinderfella).

Kris Johnson showed off his extraordinarily strong but dreamy trumpet in Hefti’s slow-tempo signature Basie tuner, “Lil Darlin’,” and the entire band blew the house down with Hefti’s rocking “Whirly Bird,” aided by Doug Lawrence’s red-hot tenor sax and Cameron’s scorching on the skins (Hefti’s son, Paul, was in the house).

In fact, Cameron captivated throughout the night (his mom was in the house!), showing off his intricate brushwork on a single snare drum during Barnhart’s brand new “Little Drummer Boy.” Barnhart, who is also a professor of jazz trumpet at Florida State University, had a field day with his brassy-gold trumpet and plunger, offering a mean Dixieland sound with horse whinnies, whimsical blasts and high-pitched squeaks.


There were eight Christmas tunes in all, some of them spotlighting individual members. Guitarist Will Matthews began with a “Lush Life”-esque intro to Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown standard “Christmas Time is Here,” and then made it mellow-tastic all over. Pianist Bobby Floyd mastered several styles with “O Christmas Tree”—runs, stride, bangs, trills, syncopation—and dang if it wasn’t one of the best offerings all night. Smooth vocalist Chris Murrell, while not as distinctive as the late, great Joe Williams, offered smart phrasing and a smoky lower range with a cool vibrato in “The Christmas Song.” And tenor Saxophonist Doug Miller blew it bright and bouncy on “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Other hot solos: The clean blasts of Bruce Harris’s trumpet on Frank Wess’s “Half Moon Street” and Endre Rice’s bluesy muted trumpet on Thad Jones’ “From One to Another.” In fact, the whole trumpet section had a chance to do some clowning around. It’s a shame that the trombones weren’t given more space to show off with improvisational soloing.

Count Basie OrchestraI don’t know why the energy lagged, especially at the top. At first, I thought Barnhart was just finding his footing, but it was awfully hot in the hall—many patrons were fanning themselves with their programs. But someone must’ve turned on the air conditioner and decided to throw 17 logs in the band’s fire, because the closing number of the first set, “Basie,” blew the chimney wide open: Bass player Marcus McLaurine done gone wild, and Lawrence’s sax blew Santa back to the Pole. The band was back on Basie the rest of the night: Later, Barnhart, who was a bit shaky earlier on trumpet, came to roaring life—and Floyd’s inventive piano riffs killed—on Frank Foster’s arrangement of “Who, Me?”

The amplification caused a hollow, echoed sound which seemed to get better later on. I wonder what the gang would have sounded like with just the soloists miked. The acoustics are so great that, just before the concert began, one of the players sneezed and he got applause from the balcony!

Still, a supremely delicious rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—with lovely vocals from Morrell and more ridiculously sizzling and sweltering from Lawrence’s sax—cemented a perfectly swingin’ yule. Thanks, boys.

previous concert photos courtesy of Count Basie Orchestra

A Swingin’ Christmas
The Count Basie Orchestra
presented by LA Phil
Walt Disney Concert Hall
played December 23, 2013
for future LA Phil shows, visit www.LAPhil.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bill Flowers December 25, 2013 at 6:46 am

Simply the best.


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