When the Count passed in 1984, the jazz world lost one of its final remnants of the Big Band era. Could he have possibly imagined that 25 years later, an orchestra bearing his name would still be out there? Probably so, as he put the wheels in motion for The Count Basie Orchestra to live on long after his death. Still, it is an unusual experience to hear such a modern take on the music he had such a tremendous role in forming.
The history is important in relation to Swinging, Singing, Playing, because the subtitle of the record is The Count Basie Orchestra Salutes The Jazz Masters. The Orchestra’s reverence for the history of jazz is almost the entire point of this disc. I say almost, because there also happens to be some damned fine music contained here as well.
The opening track, “Too Close For Comfort,” is a case in point. The original 1956 version by Ella Fitzgerald was so indelible that it became something of a standard, covered by Sammy Davis Jr., and his buddy Frank Sinatra, no less. The Count Basie Orchestra’s version pulls in the brilliant Nnenna Freelon for vocals. Freelon was an excellent choice, as she is totally in her element singing against the prominent, and very swinging horns.
Janis Siegel (of The Manhattan Transfer) is probably the better-known vocalist on this set, and her three performances are outstanding. Her scat-singing on the Ella classic “Like Young” is sublime. Her other two appearances, “I Have Waited So Long,” and “Close Your Eyes” are first-rate too. The presence of the renowned pianist Hank Jones on “Close Your Eyes” may have been an additional inspiration for her.
Although Swinging, Singing, Playing is primarily a vocals-infused recording, there are some noteworthy instrumental performances as well. I am particularly fond of “Naiomi’s Blues” in this regard. James Leary opens the tune with some fine bass work, followed by (the unfortunately named) Tony Suggs’ piano, then the palpable trombone of Mr. Clarence Banks. A nice tune all around.
In this context, it is somewhat disconcerting to hear John Coltrane quoted a couple of times, but it was specific, and intentional. What is unsurprising is the fact that the best tune (for me at least), “Naiomi’s Blues” was written, and dedicated to Count Basie himself.
Smiling down from that Big Band In The Sky, I imagine that Count Basie would enjoy what his Orchestra is doing these days.