Count Basie Orchestra
Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA • 4/10/99
I can’t begin to explain how awe-struck I was when I sauntered into Mechanics Hall, the oldest-standing concert hall in America, to see this reincarnation of one of the greatest big-band orchestras ever to grace jazz. Here I was, wearing a Yoo-Hoo v-neck t-shirt, staring down the mouth of a huge floor packed tight with seats containing well-dressed families and retirees. But being there for the music, I turned to see the band before I concentrated where my place was amongst this sea of chairs. There they were, set up in typical big band formation, belting out “Splanky.” I almost yelped.
After the first tune was through, stand-in bandleader William H. Hughes passed on some saddening news to the crowd: their director, old-time Basie trombonist Grover Mitchell, was back in California mourning the recent death of his daughter. And for more, fellow musician Joe Williams had recently passed away, and they were dedicating the set to him.
Despite the solemn announcement, the Count Basie Orchestra steamed along. Covering all the bases — Quincy Jones, Duke, Strayhorn — these guys were beautiful. The band includes only six guys that had actually worked with Basie, but everyone up there knew exactly what they were doing. Classic after classic, these guys were tight as they pulled them all off, featuring every band member (sans the piano, ironically) for multiple solos and trade-offs. Despite the immediate genre Basie was associated with, the Orchestra wasn’t there to pay tribute to swing; they were there to showcase the beauty of jazz, and all of them had the skills to prove it.
About six tunes into it, vocalist Chris Murrell was brought out to do a couple blues numbers. This guy could have held his own against Sinatra, singing beautifully and powerfully as he threw his fists to the horn lines. Included in his portion of the set (he was also brought out an hour later for a couple songs) was “Little Mama” and a soothing “Georgia on my Mind.” Then, after Murrell left, the Orchestra broke into a great version of Coltrane’s “The Drum Thing,” which featured drummer Butch Miles for a solo clocking in at least at 7-8 minutes.
The band finished up with what they claimed to be Basie’s biggest hit, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” Receiving a standing ovation as they left the stage, the Orchestra came back for one more, trailed into a short rendition of “Jingle Bells,” and unfortunately departed for good. This performance brought back a moment in jazz history — before bebop, Miles Davis, or (dare I say?) Kenny G., there was Basie. And although he’s gone, his vision and momentum is still carried on with this collection of musicians today. I’m just glad I’m around to see it.