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Basie Orchestra blisters in Worcester.

Byline: Scott McLennan

COLUMN: MUSIC REVIEW

WORCESTER - When the Count Basie Orchestra played Thursday at Mechanics Hall, drummer Butch Miles stole the show.

No, wait, piano player Tony Suggs was the star, as he helmed the seat long occupied by Basie himself and was sure to add The Chief's trademark three-note sign-off.

Actually, tenor sax player Doug Lawrence was the guy who blew away the crowd assembled for the final chapter of this year's Mass Jazz series presented by Music Worcester Inc.

Come to think of it, when trumpet player Michael Williams hit those high notes, there was nothing like it.

Upon further reflection, the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of the stately and affable Bill Hughes is loaded with star power from the rhythm section, to the sax players, on to the trombones and up into the row of trumpet players seated on the top step of the orchestra dais, and true to the legacy of the orchestra's namesake founder, everyone is first and foremost in service to the song.

Basie, as a band leader, did not make his name as a player - as, say, Dizzy Gillespie - or as a composer, as did Duke Ellington. Rather, Basie rose to the top of the jazz ranks as an arranger and visionary, infusing the big band format with a wild brand of rhythmic swing.

To understand how the Count Basie Orchestra manages to thrive 23 years after its founder died, one simply had to hear the orchestra's show-closing rendition of the song "Basie." Bassist James Leary, guitar player Will Matthews, pianist Suggs and drummer Miles generated a runaway rhythm while tenor and trumpet solos punctuated the arrangement amid huge swells of frenetic ensemble playing. The tune and its performance embodied the playful joy of Basie's music while likewise highlighting the finely honed chops it takes to pull it off. Basie's jazz is that perfect balance of sophistication and accessibility, and his orchestra of today gets the point.

Not only does it get it, it furthers it. While the orchestra's generous two-set concert featured many staples from Basie's day, fresh material kept the proceedings up to date. The band played a fairly new composition, "Yawaekat" (that's "Takeaway" spelled backward) written by Doug Miller, one the orchestra's tenor sax players. And things turned explosive on "The Hawk," a piece written especially for phenomenal drummer Butch Miles (who all night convinced you he was somehow playing with four arms though you only saw two).

Singer Carla Cook performed two songs during each set, and her interludes heightened the sense of contrast the orchestra manipulates to its advantage. Cook settled the sets with performance of such standards as "Lover Come Back to Me."

The orchestra' first set yielded some interesting selections such as Neil Hefti's "Fan Tail," which brought successive call-and-response playing among saxes, trumpets and trombones. The band twice invoked Ellington in the first set, performing Duke's signature "Take the `A' Train" and "To You," a Thad Jones song Basie and Ellington performed together for a 1957 album they jointly recorded.

Basie's own signature tunes "Shiny Stockings" and "Good Time Blues" fleshed out the first set, with bassist Leary taking a fun-filled solo on the latter piece.

The orchestra's second set was just as entertaining as its first, with highlights being the band's second trip of the night into the Quincy Jones songbook for the madcap "Dum Dum" and the Basie "hit" "Corner Pocket."

While the jazz audience is apt to look askance at so-called "ghost bands," ones whose founders and leaders have long been in the heavenly choir, the Count Basie Orchestra proved itself to be a living, swinging entity in its own right, all the while staying true to its roots.

ART: PHOTO

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/JIM COLLINS

CUTLINE: Trumpeter Andre Rice plays with the Count Basie Orchestra Thursday at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 5, 2007
Words:644
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