Basie's orchestra comes to SA

The spirit of Count Basie is very much alive and we feel it every time we take to the stage.” The speaker is trombonist Bill Hughes, who originally joined Basie’s band in September 1953, and is today the man at the helm of this multi-award-winning orchestra.

Hughes travelled the world with the legendary Basie and was a member of the elite orchestra that recorded the hits Shiny Stockings, Corner Pocket and the sensational April in Paris.

In a coup for the South Africa jazz scene, Hughes and 17 members of this august orchestra will appear this weekend at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival in Newtown, Johannesburg.

What makes this year so different from previous local jazz festivals is that it will feature the first American big band to play here in about 30 years.

On the phone from Staten Island, New York, where he has lived for 30 years, Hughes said how excited they were to be playing in Africa for the first time: “Basie would really have liked this,” he chuckled.

The key to the success of the orchestra over so many decades, he explained, is that they played “foot-tapping” music, as Basie himself would label it.

“Basie would say that if he looked down from the stage and people were tapping their feet then he knew he was doing his job. We try to continue this and keep the same type of feeling going while communicating with audiences.”

Working with Basie, who died in 1984, was a “marvellous experience” because he was: “A singularly tight man, easy going yet firm, who believed in his music and showed it and made everybody love him.”

The Count Basie Orchestra has, over the years, worked with nearly every famous vocalist around, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, Diane Schuur and George Benson.

Hughes says that after such a long relationship he feels the “Basie spirit” still hovers over them. “Sometimes when we are trying to figure out what to play we ask, ‘What would the chief—that’s what we called him—play right here?’”

Hughes said the band would try to recreate “some of the older shows” during their South African performances by playing a lot of the standards that people such as Frank Foster and Neal Hefty wrote.

Last year, the Count Basie Orchestra recorded a new album in Japan, much of it “rehashed stuff,” but also, as he put it, “new things to play”.

The Count Basie Orchestra is an elite club and is difficult to join. How do they recruit new members?

“We choose musicians through recommendations. But not only do they have to blend with the style playing-wise, but also personality-wise. We can’t be travelling 30 or 40 weeks a year with people who don’t fit in socially.”

Hughes laments the fact that when it comes to music in the United States today the big band sound is not as popular as it was in its heyday.

I countered that there was obviously a market for them otherwise they would not on stage. “We play a lot of high schools and colleges,” Hughes said. “We try to keep it alive.”

The Count Basie Orchestra performs at the Bassline on Friday, August 24. Also on the bill that night are Thandie Klaasen and the French group, noJazz. On Saturday, August 25, they share the Bassline stage with Dorothy Masuka and noJazz. Booking is at Computicket. See www.standardbankjazz.co.za

CD review

Sabine Meyer and Julian Bliss

Clarinet Concertos by Krommer and Spohr (EMI Classics)

German clarinetist Sabine Meyer has worked hard throughout her career to bring recognition to her sidelined instrument, performing internationally as a soloist and in big-name chamber music endeavours.

In her new album, she teams up with her student, 17-year-old English wunderkind Julian Bliss, with an offering of two solo concertos and a double clarinet concerto by the little-known composers Louis Spohr and Franz Krommer. They are supported by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and conductor Kenneth Sillito.

Bliss, born a generation later then Meyer, is obviously less accomplished, but no less talented then his mentor. He rose to fame at 13 by winning the prestigious Philadelphia Young Soloists Competition and has already embarked on an international career before finishing high school.

Their connection is strikingly clear, as the two share a common approach, virtuosic and dramatic, but with a rich, warm sound. The two Spohr concertos on this disc offer a mixture of classical grace and thrilling virtuosity, with Meyer performing the Concerto No 4 and Bliss the Concerto No 2. But the highlight of this disc is definitely the collaboration in the Krommer concerto, delivered by the bright and bubbly clarinet sound of Meyer and Bliss.—Peter Feldman

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