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By Bob Weinberg
Hip new projects keep the Count Basie Orchestra jumpin’.
For 30 years, Scotty Barnhart has enjoyed a privileged spot from which to experience the roaring swing machine that is the Count Basie Orchestra. Starting in the trumpet section in 1993, he graduated to musical director in 2013, carrying on the Count’s big band legacy, now in its 88th year. Under Barnhart’s stewardship, the CBO continues to gain new fans while touring extensively and recording albums that display the sophisticated yet muscular Kansas City sound for which Basie is renowned — and updating it, as well.
Two new projects should broaden the Basie footprint even further: Late Night Basie (Primary Wave), an EP on which the CBO, as well as stars from the worlds of jazz, hip-hop, blues and jam band, perform Basie material in their own way; and Basie Swings the Blues, a pending all-star blues recording for the Candid label, on which marquee names such as Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite step out front of the big band.
“I’ve never gotten a ‘no,’” says Barnhart by phone from his home in Tallahassee, explaining that guests such as Stevie Wonder, Take 6 and Kurt Elling — not to mention the above-mentioned blues greats — have all been ecstatic about recording with the CBO. “Because this is Basie! This is not my orchestra. This is still Count Basie’s orchestra. I’m just a steward for a while. I’m just here to try to keep it going and do what he would have done.”
Basie, who died in 1984, most likely would have approved of methods to win over younger listeners, an express aim of the Late Night Basie project. Producer Paul Peck, who put together the lineup of artists with Primary Wave’s Robert Dippold, brainstormed ideas and song selection with Barnhart. The album kicks off with a hip-hop-infused rendition of the Frank Foster-penned Basie number “Didn’t You,” with veteran groove band Lettuce backing rapper Talib Kweli. Also on-board is blues duo/sister act Larkin Poe, whose slide-guitar read of “Blue and Sentimental” evokes a rootsy, retro-country feel. New Orleans brass band Soul Rebels step lively with a spirited romp through Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” recruiting jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton, as well as vocalist Cimafunk and djembe drummer Weedie Bramiah, for a sunny Caribbean celebration.
The CBO takes charge on three tracks, including Basie chestnuts “One O’ Clock Jump,” with guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn; and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” with Conan O’Brien late night guitarist Jimmy Vivino. The third CBO number, “M Squad,” was penned by Basie for a late-’50s/early-’60s TV show (it was also used in the Naked Gun movies) and features Barnhart’s longtime pal and doppelganger, trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Barnhart is truly stoked about the CBO’s blues album, slated for late August. The idea came to him in 2019, when the Count was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and he was invited to the ceremony in Memphis. He was seated at a table with veteran blues singer Bobby Rush when the lightbulb blinked on. “I said, ‘You know what, man? This is what our next record needs to be.’” Barnhart teamed up with co-producers Steve Jordan and John Burk, reached out to Rush, Guy, Musselwhite, George Benson, Robert Cray, Keb’ Mo’ and Shemekia Copeland (among others) and finished mixing in March. Longtime Basie singers Carmen Bradford and Jamie Davis are here, too. Barnhart sees it as a game changer. “It’s un-freakin’ [-believable],” he gushes. “What we did was mix the Delta blues with the grandeur and swing of the Count Basie Orchestra. It’s unprecedented.”
At 58 and a Professor of Jazz Trumpet at Florida State University, Barnhart — who first saw Basie perform at a high school in his native Atlanta — never takes for granted his good fortune. During his time with the CBO, he’s worked behind the best — Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, to name two — and has the honor of keeping vital one of great big band books with an ensemble still excited to play it.
“There’s nothing like it, man,” he says. “You can imagine what it feels like to be standing right in front of ’em. I mean, I spent 20 years in the trumpet section, but to be up front … every night, when we strike up, I just get goosebumps, man. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”