One of the best of the many "ghost" bands that have operated through the years would have to be that of Count Basie. Although he died over twenty years ago, the Count Basie Orchestra — or the CBO, as it calls itself (complete with a nifty logo that pictures all the group's members) — has pretty much been a continuous force in jazz. Under the direction of Bill Hughes in recent years, it has performed with stars like Tony Bennett and has consistently topped jazz polls while winning countless Grammys and other awards.
For the CBO's newest album, Swinging, Singing, Playing — now out on the Mack Avenue label — Hughes has handed over the baton to Dennis Wilson, who at one time played trombone for the Count. The veteran arranger/conductor also acts as co-producer (along with Al Pryor) on a collection of tunes that is described as a "salute to the jazz masters."
Three years ago I reviewed a new album featuring the CBO, but it was a very different animal. Ray Sings, Basie Swings was a musical composite that was created by combining some old Ray Charles tapes with modern sessions from the CBO. This time around the orchestra and its many guest stars are all captured in new studio sessions. Guests include instrumentalists like flutist Frank Wess and trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, and a number of talented vocalists too. Those range from the well-established, such as the Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel, to the newer sounds of Nnenna Freelon.
The 11 tracks on the album are mostly vocal standards, reflecting the intent of the album to salute the past, but a few of Wilson's own newer compositions are included. Among those mostly instrumental, mostly bluesy pieces (in fact, 3 of the 4 have "blues" in the title) are some nice listens. I enjoyed the talented keyboard work of guest artist Geri Allen on "Giant Blues Flag Waver," and especially appreciated Barnhart's trumpet on the lush "Dark Morning."
Among the standards my favorite was probably "Like Young," a Previn/Webster classic that allows Siegel to strut her stuff, although she's also good on the soft and mellow "I Have Waited So Long." Freelon's efforts were enthusiastic, especially on the lively "Too Close For Comfort," but a little uneven.
Other guest artists not already mentioned include Jon Hendricks and Jamie Cullum on vocals (with Cullum also providing some keyboard work), along with Curtis Fuller on trombone, Hank Jones on piano, Mark McClean and Butch Miles on drums, and Rufus Reid on bass. All that talent added to what was already a solid, veteran jazz orchestra is a can't miss proposition for jazz lovers. Recommended.