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Count Basie: Live at the Sands

The Reprise CD consists of excerpts from Basie’s opening sets at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1966. As a prelude to Frank Sinatra’s “main event,” these sets had to be delivered with maximum brilliance and impact. The strong personnCount Basie el at the time, including Sonny Payne on drums and Lockjaw Davis and Al Grey as main soloists, could ensure this, as the warm audience response indicates. And most of that audience, in all probability, was there primarily to hear the singer from Hoboken.

In those days there was much criticism of Sonny Payne’s showmanship, but this was more off-putting visually than aurally. Here, for the most part, he provides a strong, lifting pulse that doesn’t appear to conflict with that of the rhythm section’s other three members. Lockjaw Davis contributes energetically and imaginatively, while Al Grey’s plungered interludes on “Makin’ Whoopee” and “I Needs to Be Beed With” provide a change of pace and mood.

Thirty-two years later, on the Mama disc, Grover Mitchell has the band back on track and moving in a direction Basie would have approved. Remembering his good work on Basie’s album with Sarah Vaughan, Mitchell called on Allyn Ferguson for arrangements in a program of Ellington material. Ferguson’s may be a new name to many jazz enthusiasts, but it is well known in musician circles. His training began at the age of four with trumpet lessons from Red Nichols’ father. After studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, he became involved with the beat movement and Kenneth Patchen before descending upon the Los Angeles jazz scene, where he wrote and arranged for Stan Kenton and Ella Fitzgerald besides Basie. This activity inevitably led to the film industry, and it was while working in it that Grover Mitchell first met him during his own studio years.

Ferguson’s arrangements adroitly apply the textural qualities associated with the Basie band and explore the potential of the material with considerable ingenuity. The treatment of “Take the A Train,” at a slower tempo, is immediately engaging, and there are many intriguingly individual touches. The soloists, all detailed in the booklet, notably include leader Mitchell on his trombone and guest Frank Wess on flute. Veteran Jackie Kelso, now leading the reed section, takes Johnny Hodges’ role on “Paris Blues,” and Brad Leali views Romeo and Juliet anew in “Star Crossed Lovers,” another Hodges vehicle. Kenny Hing and Doug Miller maintain the Basie tradition of two contrasting tenor players, and Butch Miles gives solid support on drums of a kind essential to all Basie enterprises.

The same band is heard on the Concord disc with Rosemary Clooney. There are three arrangements by Ferguson, three by Peter Matz and ten by John Oddo, the last of whom plays piano on five tracks. The booklet shows all of the band’s members with the singer in some thirteen photographs, helpfully names all the soloists, and boasts a list of credits big enough for a major movie.The band’s performances are crisply professional, and the singer seemingly comfortable and assured, so that altogether the disc presents a happy pairing of talents.

Originally Published