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To build on an old saying, there are three things that one can always depend on: death, taxes and the Count Basie Orchestra. Basie formed his first big band in 1934 and it became an influential force that defined swing. But while the “Old Testament” band of 1934-49 had brilliant soloists and spontaneous-sounding riff tunes, it was the “New Testament” band of 1952-84 that became the most influential swing orchestra of the past 70 years. Sure, its individual soloists were always impressive, but it was the floating rhythm section, the ensembles and the complementary arrangements that made Basie’s band instantly recognizable. While the leader passed away in 1984, his swinging institution has continued on for 37 years without declining or changing in the slightest.
The two-CD set Live at Birdland sports an album cover similar to the 1961 LP Basie at Birdland, although there is no attempt to recreate the original program. Under the leadership of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, the Basie band has stuck to its famous sound and mostly vintage arrangements while sounding fresh, enthusiastic and creative within the classic style.
A measure of the strength of the current Basie band is that every member of the 17-piece orchestra (except rhythm guitarist Will Matthews) has at least one chance to solo. Barnhart is excellent on his features (“Who, Me?” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “There Will Never Be Another You”). Tenor players Doug Lawrence and Doug Miller are consistent stars, altoist Markus Howell displays a beautiful tone and pianist Glen Pearson hints at Basie without feeling compelled to copy him too closely. Vocalists Carmen Bradford and Jamie Davis make a few appearances — Bradford is best on “Only the Young” — and Butch Miles (drummer with the band in the 1980s) pops up on a couple of numbers.
The program is filled with blues at various tempos, occasional ballads and a few swing standards. The audiences at Birdland during the four nights in January 2020 sound justifiably pleased with the results.