It was obvious it would be a good outing for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra when its marvelous plunger-mute trumpeter Snooky Young — hitherto silent through most of the summer — took the first swinging solo Wednesday. Indeed Snooky, a venerable alumnus of the Count Basie band, set the tone for the evening — an often electric look back at the Basie-Ellington axis by two big bands, enhanced by modern technology.
With the help of a camera crew and a video screen left over from recent L.A. Philharmonic multimedia concerts, the audience got to see some closeup action via ultra-sharp HDTV images. At last, the personal connection with the audience that John Clayton had been talking about all summer had been achieved, for the images were highly communicative — the sheer joy on Clayton’s face as he led the band, the competitive fire that lit up the dueling soloists, the titterings from the crowd whenever baby-faced guitarist Randy Napolean appeared onscreen. If budget allows, video ought to be a permanent feature here for jazz concerts.
The main event was a monster stunt that worked — a re-creation of the surprisingly successful merger of the Basie and Ellington orchestras on a 1961 Columbia album, “First Time: The Count Meets The Duke.” (Coincidentally, Columbia Legacy just reissued the disc). The Big Band Alumni All-Stars was assembled mostly from Basie veterans and local stalwarts and was wheeled out in a duplicate bandstand next to the CHJO. Together, the two bands revved it up on three cleverly arranged selections from the Basie-Ellington album, passing the baton masterfully from one rhythm section to the other, the reed and brass sections playing together with amazing precision.
On their own, the All-Stars revealed a solid, undiminished feeling for the Basie idiom as they played a powerhouse set (“Shiny Stockings,” “Lil’ Darlin,” “Rollercoaster”), with former Basie band leader Frank Foster as de facto leader from his chair in the sax section. As good as the CHJO sounded in their own set earlier, the All-Stars outdid them in the crucial area of swing — and much of that advantage could be attributed to the subtle, effortlessly percolating beat of the underappreciated drummer of the Carson-era “Tonight Show” band, Ed Shaughnessy.
Almost but not quite overlooked in the shuffle was a video tribute to the late Joe Williams — who had been originally booked for this gig — and another multimedia stunt where the CHJO sympathetically accompanied a tape of Williams singing “You Are So Beautiful.” Former Basie vocalist Carmen Bradford revealed a duskier, more matured style in a brief set with the CHJO.