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May 2009

Count Basie & His Orchestra
Live in Berlin & Stockholm 1968

By 1968 the big bands were supposedly dead, but someone forgot to tell that to Count Basie, whose orchestra, still going strong, hadn’t altered much of anything since its heyday. Although most of the key members of the classic lineups had either passed on or moved on (notable exception: guitarist Freddie Green, wrapping up his third decade with Basie), this complete set from Berlin and a briefer segment from Stockholm may offer the most comprehensive visual record available of Basie working an audience.

As bandleader and pianist, Basie’s skills had not dissipated. Relaxed, gracious and exuding class, Basie alternately peels out commanding, bluesy solos then cedes to his musicians, among them tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, filling the chair once held by Lester Young. Trumpet newcomer Oscar Brashear is another dynamo, and a young Marlena Shaw turns “Muddy Water Blues” into a soul showstopper and navigates the tempo changes of “On a Clear Day” like a seasoned diva. Another new arrival, drummer Harold Jones, swings like a wildman, pulling out the stops on Sam Nestico’s “The Magic Flea.”

While the band’s performance is laudable, the video and audio quality of the black-and-white recording falls somewhere between lo-fi and lower-fi. Grainy and out-of-focus, it resembles a kinescope of a long-lost episode of a ’50s TV program. Also, the five-song Stockholm portion of the program, taped only three days after the Berlin gig, comes off as filler, offering only one number, Neal Hefti’s “Splanky,” not included in the German show. Nonetheless, as a historical document, and for the opportunity to witness a full-length Count Basie concert, the disc is worth a look.

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