Count Basie Orchestra Knows Pop Music
By Eugene Holley Jr. I Sep. 12, 2018
The Count Basie Orchestra was founded in 1936 in Kansas City, Missouri, and continues to this day, decades after its namesake bandleader died in 1984 at the age of 79. Just don’t call it repertory, or worse, a ghost band.
“This band is not about that,” said Grammy winner Gregg Field, who played drums in the Basie band from 1981 to 1983 and produced a new Concord album by the group. “This band is about retaining all of the things we love about Basie, but then, letting it continue to adopt new material.”
The orchestra’s new 12-track album, All About That Basie, aurally illustrates Field’s point. The band plays true to its Kansas City roots, swinging with its trademark, steady 4/4 beat that Basie biographer Albert Murray called “the velocity of celebration,” and is led by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart.
“When we did the record, I said we don’t have anything to prove anymore,” Barnhart said. “I said let’s do half of the music people would expect, but do some other stuff we haven’t done before, like Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Adele and even ‘Tequila.’ I wanted to make sure that there is something on this record for everybody. I think Basie would have loved it.”
The album ranges from Adele’s “Hello” to Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and special guests include vocal supergroup Take 6 on a rendition of “Everyday I Have the Blues,” as well as Kurt Elling’s ebullient take of “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me,” a tune from the 1966 Sinatra At The Sands.
But Basie’s This Time By Basie, Pop Goes Basie and Basie’s Beatle Bag prove that pop music is nothing new for the band.
“All through the ’50, ’60s and ’70s, Basie would take the music of that time and do it Basie style,” Field said. “We were coming up on the 80th anniversary of the band, and I thought, why don’t we create an album that celebrates all of the decades of that band by bringing in contemporary artists that love Basie.”
One of the high points of the recording is Basie alumni Carmen Bradford’s rousing rendition of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” For vocalist Bradford—who joined the Basie band in 1983 and was the bandleader’s last hire—this selection, arranged by Benny Carter but previously never recorded, is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who, like Bradford, ranks along with Helen Humes, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan as Basie vocalists.
“I was supposed to sing it with someone,” Bradford said, “but I feel like I’ve been out here long enough to pay tribute to Ella by myself; who she was and what she meant to me. The band has a very, very powerful sound, and you have to be a very fit singer. You have to really want to sing.”
Bradford comes full circle as a veteran with the orchestra. “We have so many young people in the Basie band,” she said. “What I hear are young voices, just like mine when I was their age. They studied and did their homework to recreate a sound they weren’t even alive to hear. So, it warms my heart that Scotty has clearly thought things out in who he’s chosen to keep this music alive, and keep the Basie sound alive. I feel I can finally exhale.”
With the new album and a full touring schedule, Barnhart continues to adapt the Basie sound to the modern era, while staying true to its signature sound.
“I remember reading a quote about Basie hearing Walter Page and the Blue Devils, and it was the feeling that they had that made him want to be a part of that sound,” Barnhart said. “That’s what set Basie’s orchestra apart. My job is making sure that everybody can dance to everything we play, no matter the tempo.” DB