Jazz Album of the Week: Count Basie Orchestra’s 'Live at Birdland' is Cause to Dress Up Again
As we slogged through month after dispiriting month of the pandemic, it began to feel reasonable to wonder whether we’d ever dress up again. Even now, as we brazenly lurch two steps forward for every one penitent step back, we’re told that remote work is here to stay.
The new normal, for better and worse, will be less formal.
For better because you can reallocate your business casual budget to something that in the Marie Kondo-ified parlance of our times “serves you better.” For worse because feeling comfortable and feeling cool are not the same. And for the health of your own self-concept, feeling cool every once in a while works wonders.
It’s why the tuxedo and theatre-going finery exist. But if you’re not ready to go all white tie and tails in an auditorium full of strangers who may or may not be vaccinated, allow me to present a relatively risk-free alternative: The Count Basie Orchestra’s (CBO) latest release Live at Birdland.
Recorded over four nights in January 2020 at the third incarnation of the famous New York City club that Basie considered his musical home, Live at Birdland is a fresh haircut, a straight-razor shave, Brylcreem and Ralph Lauren’s Polo Green; it’s patent leather wingtips and a black bow tie left to dangle from an unbuttoned collar after you’ve had a few martinis. It’s classic, timeless cool.
Over two discs and 33—yes, 33!— tracks, the 18-piece big band swings, swaggers, and struts through signature Basie bookends like “One O’Clock Jump,” “Shiny Stockings,” and “April in Paris,” while treating the meat of CBO’s catalogue—tunes like “The Kid from Red Bank,” “Kansas City Shout,” “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” and “Whirly Bird”—with the Count’s secret recipe of precision and ebullience.
Listeners will notice some killer new arrangements courtesy of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, who’s been CBO’s music director since 2013—see and hear for yourself what he’s done with two of my all-time favorite standards, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” The former smokes and crackles like barbeque on a hot day in East Texas, while the latter, usually a mid-tempo crooner’s favorite, is a delight in double-time.
And, as with every iteration of the Basie band, the horn soloists are assertive and muscular, yet smooth; they’re never out of tune and get in and out of their breaks like all-pro cornerbacks. Do yourself a favor and check out Barnhart channeling Satch on “Moten Swing.” And take just a second out of your day to listen to what baritone saxophonist Joshua Lee is laying down on “Whirly Bird.” The South Philly native— honored as one of Temple University’s “30 Under 30” in 2020—will leave you shaking your head in humbled appreciation, playing bebop lines on the bari with Bird-like facility.
But with CBO, as with any organization that’s been operating at a consistently high level for 85 years, it all starts with the CEO. Here, there are three chief executives: pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Trevor Ware, and drummer Robert “B.T.” Boone, Jr. Their powers combine to form a rhythm section in the best tradition of Count Basie and Jo Jones.
Listen to their knowing complicity during the opening 40 seconds of “The Kid from Red Bank,” as they play a classic rope-a-dope with the live Birdland audience. As Ware’s walking bassline eggs on Pearson’s bluesy noodling, half the crowd’s keeping time with the locomotive triplets issuing from Boone’s hi-hat, while the other half’s thinking, “Where’s that brassy Basie muscle?”
And then boom!
Those 14 horns hit with the force of an overhand right from Riddick Bowe, lending credence to the analogies longtime Wall Street Journal jazz critic Will Friedwald used in 2015 to explain how Basie revolutionized jazz—“by making it possible for 18 men to play together in a way that combined the force of a prizefighter with the grace of a ballet dancer.”
Of course, if we’re talking about Basie, in front of 18 good men is usually an equally talented woman. The Billie Holidays, the Helen Humeses, the Ella Fitzgeralds, and the Sarah Vaughans were always just as important—especially from a commercial perspective—as the Frank Fosters, Thad Joneses, and Lester Youngs.
When the Count discovered Carmen Bradford in 1982, Bradford, then 22, became the last vocalist hand-picked by Basie for the CBO. Nearly 40 years later, she’s as versatile as ever, swinging and scatting with bouncy insouciance on “Honeysuckle Rose” but arguably more impressive communicating deeper sentiment on reckoning-with-love-and-mortality ballads like “Only the Young” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” tunes that require mature voices—check out the duet between Bradford and stately baritone Jamie Davis on the latter— to be carried off properly.
There’s not that much that’s new here, not that much that could be branded as innovative— whatever that increasingly nebulous but ubiquitous merit badge even means. And maybe that’s why this album is, musically and conceptually, refreshing.
Rather than indulging the artists, this project indulges the audience. Just listen to the response these guys get; it’s electric. It makes you wonder whether demand for innovation, for novelty, is what we’re told it is, or whether, perhaps, we’re undervaluing continuity—the types of things that have always brought us joy and made us feel good about ourselves—to our detriment.
In that spirit, embrace remote work if it serves you. But don’t forget to dress up sometimes; a little needless formalism is good for the soul.