Of the 18 members of the current Count Basie Orchestra, only four actually played with the Count, who has been gone for 20 years now. Yet the well-drilled Basie signature brands of voicings and swing remain firmly in place — and for the cluster of singers who performed with the band Wednesday night, its magnetic pull is as irresistible as ever.
The band has been celebrating the Basie centennial on the road, having arrived at the Bowl directly after a month in Europe, following another month in Southeast Asia. Yet the band came out of the starting gate with a rush of energy called “The Wind Machine” and a crisp boogie-woogie treatment of Benny Carter’s “Vine Street Rumble.”
Lead alto John Kelson effectively evoked the competing tradition of Duke Ellington with his Johnny Hodges-like glides in Billy Strayhorn’s “Paris Blues.” And give the band’s youthful baritone vocalist Chris Murrell points for facing down two formidable ghosts who used to sing with Basie — Joe Williams in “Everyday” and Frank Sinatra in the great original Neal Hefti chart of “Please Be Kind.”
So went the first half — so far, so good. Yet in the long second half, the pacing of the concert sagged a bit, overloaded by the succession of four star singers who were given three songs apiece. It might have been better if the four had been distributed evenly throughout the evening or — taking a leaf from Jazz at the Bowl’s tribute concerts — they had traded off one song apiece in round-robin fashion.
For Dianne Reeves’ repertoire, the band sounded like it was going through the motions as a generic backup group. Ernestine Anderson was far more accommodating to the loping Basie brand of swing in “One Mint Julep” and “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” though “Street of Dreams” was mismatched to a bossa nova groove. The ever-dapper Jon Hendricks ventured deeper into the Sinatra repertoire for “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “September of My Years,” nailing the poignant sentiment of the latter. And the uninhibited Diane Schuur reprised three selections from her extroverted encounter with the Basie band in 1987 for GRP (recorded right here in Hollywood).
All, however, did their best work as a team in the vintage blues encore “Roll ‘Em Pete,” scatting up a storm, with a romping outro that should have gone on much longer.