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Arts & Life

Music Review: The Count Basie Orchestra's 'A Very Swingin' Basie Christmas!'

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The Count Basie Orchestra
A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! (Concord Records)

Founded in Kansas City in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra celebrates its 80th anniversary with the release of its first Christmas album. With delightful assists from guests including the Christmas mainstay Johnny Mathis, the ensemble upholds its reputation as the greatest blues-soaked big band in jazz on the ebullient if stodgy A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!

The Count Basie Orchestra’s brash sound remains synonymous with Kansas City 31 years after William “Count” Basie’s death. Currently under the direction of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, the band’s historical importance and lofty reputation allow it to maintain a large payroll and meet the artistic challenge of playing a form of mainstream jazz that hasn’t been at the forefront of popular culture for decades.

The band supported Tony Bennett on his 2008 Grammy-nominated A Swingin’ Christmas, and the title of this new effort is an overt reference to the organization’s successful partnership with Bennett. But the crooner’s absence isn’t missed.

Instead, the core 17-piece band delivers a powerful visceral punch. Even in this era of electronic dance music, the organic blast of a hefty horn section can still induce adrenaline thrills.

A rich sound field reflects the expansive capacity of contemporary recording technology, though the arrangements sound a little musty. Longtime Basie collaborator Sammy Nestico, 91, arranged “Jingle Bells” and “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslas.” He’s is one of the most important figures in the evolution of the big band sound, but his distinctive work is redolent of the Eisenhower Era.

The anachronistic tone doesn’t spoil A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! partly because holiday albums aren’t appropriate forums for innovation. (Besides, the ensemble’s previous attempts to seem contemporary backfired; the band’s low point was two albums of Beatles covers released in the 1960s.) Reinforcing the quaint tone here is Mathis, whose cheerful renditions of seasonal favorites have been holiday staples for generations. “It’s the Holiday Season” is irresistibly corny, and Mathis delivers it with a smile in his smooth voice.

Lustrous R&B vocalist Ledesi sounds as if she was asked to sing in Mathis’ style on “The Christmas Song,” where unflatteringly precise enunciation replaces the casual accents that make Ledesi’s hits like “Pieces of Me” distinctive. In the liner notes, Barnhardt says he hopes the presence of Ledesi, 43, will introduce “her young fan base” to the Basie sound.

While the band hopes for new "young" fans in their forties, nothing on this genteel record is intended to challenge the sensibilities of those fans who once danced at the band’s concerts.

Pianist Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of America’s first family of jazz, appears on “Let It Snow” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” His contributions will delight listeners who fondly recall Basie’s percussive solos. And the tactful playing of guitarist Will Matthews, the only member of the ensemble who makes frequent appearances as a bandleader in Kansas City nightclubs, underscores Marsalis’ showcases.

The album’s best solo comes on a heartbreakingly wistful “Silent Night,” where saxophonist Marshall McDonald’s tender statement evokes Kansas City jazz legends Ben Webster and Lester Young. His playing is so potent the track would be welcome on a steamy summer morning.

Memorable moments like McDonald’s compensate for the album’s deficiencies. That unnecessary exclamation point in the album’s title and the characterization of the 11th track on the 44-minute album as an encore feel like signs of desperation, but the band shouldn’t feel compelled to resort to cheap gimmicks. In spite of its faults, “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!” is an entirely worthy addition to the ensemble’s illustrious discography.

Bill Brownlee's writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.

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