The Count Basie Orchestra, Directed by Scotty Barnhart (with Guests)
Basie Swings the Blues
Candid Records (assisted by Alligator Records)
‘There ain’t nothin’ wrong with havin’ a good ol’ time,’ Mr. Sipp urges in “Let’s Have a Good Time,” the hip-shaking opening number to Basie Swings the Blues. Sipp, the saucy, dapper, alter ego of gospel guitarist Castro Coleman, wrote the familiar-themed song, and lights it up—and the entire affair—in a voice rubbed in loam but dripping with class all the same. Extolling the virtues of a good ol’ fashioned party while the 18-member, legendary Count Basie Orchestra, with a rockin’ rhythm section at their core, creates a big, beautiful ruckus? Exciting to say the least. The infectious feelings they elicit never let up.
Orchestra director and trumpeter Scotty Barnhart was struck by the idea to make this album while attending a function with the now 89-year-old blues and entertainment wonder, Bobby Rush. Back in the day, Basie and the Orchestra would often swing the blues with singers Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, and others. This album cuts an entirely different kind of rug. Barnhart wanted to capture the Orchestra knee-deep in the kind of delta blues that Charlie Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson were playing at the time Basie formed the Orchestra in 1935, which incidentally was two years after Mr. Rush was born. Basie (1904-1984), a jazz pianist with unmatched panache, was known to tell audiences, “Our blues will make your blues go away.” Well, the ladies and gentlemen Barnhart has assembled here have certainly triumphed at that job.
Living blues legends and soon-to-be legends alike blend with the Orchestra and turn a mix of standards, obscurities, and newly presented songs into gold. The distinctive personalities impart incredible variety without a hitch in the flow. Bobby Rush sings robustly and blows torrents of blues harp on his own composition, “Boogie in the Dark,” as if he is as ageless as the style of music at play. Shemekia Copeland explodes on “I’m a Woman,” her hero Koko Taylor’s reinterpretation of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” Adding fuel to her ball of fire are post-war blues luminaries Buddy Guy on stinging guitar, and Charlie Musselwhite wafting sweet harp.
All the while, the Orchestra plays with stunning facility and gleeful emotion. The charts are strong, and the melodies slip and slide to every whim of the singers. During “Down Home Blues,” a splendid vocal duet featuring Keb’ Mo’ and Lauren Mitchell, the musicians simmer and roil along with the singers, together creating a magical encounter with the blues. Bettye LaVette sings a rapidly surging “Stormy Monday” in her inimitable acidic voice, and Robert Cray plays smooth, smoky guitar while crooning “The Midnight Hour.”
Imagine a room full of dancers dressed to the nines and bathed in glittering lights, with rows of white shirts and black ties toting saxes, trumpets, and trombones lined up neatly on the bandstand. But in the center of it all stands the walls of a rickety juke joint shrouded in swirls of blue smoke. That dichotomy plays out in wonderful fashion here. These players have presented an important document but were out to have fun in the process. The extraordinary music on Basie Swings the Blues makes impact after impact in the “good ol’ time” department.
Tom Clarke for MAS
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