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Christmas in a Count Basie mood

The master's orchestra decked Disney Hall with sounds that made him come alive.

December 22, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"Count Basie" and "Christmas" aren't ordinarily used in the same sentence -- or experienced on the same stage. Yet there was the Count Basie Orchestra at Disney Hall on Thursday night, avidly applying the Basie groove to a program sparkling with holiday songs.

The ensemble is, of course, a ghost band, one of several Swing Era big bands that have continued long after the deaths of their original leaders. Basie died in 1984, and the 17-piece orchestra -- which includes four members originally hired by Basie -- is now led by former sideman Bill Hughes.

Its music, however, is as alive as ever. Basie, from the moment he formed the ensemble in the mid-'30s, had a knack for picking good material and players, setting the right tempos and driving the rhythm with his airy, epigrammatic piano fills.

Most of those qualities were present at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and it was immensely entertaining to hear them applied to such unlikely items as "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Let It Snow." Each simmered with the Basie groove -- an in-the-pocket rhythm section drive in which a subtle, four-beats-to-the-bar guitar strum combines with walking bass, dynamic drum accents and piano punctuations. Add to that the sudden explosiveness of four trumpets and four trombones, combined with the roiling harmonies of the five-man saxophone section, and Christmas came alive in a brand-new fashion.

But that wasn't all. No Basie program is complete without some of the classics, and Hughes generously dropped them in throughout the program: "920 Special," "One O'Clock Jump" and "Lil' Darling," as well as a smoothly swinging rendering of the Duke Ellington classic "In a Mellow Tone." One wished, in fact, for even more from the rich Basie songbook.

Criticizing anything Basie-related could easily result in lumps of coal in Tuesday morning's stockings, but there were, for example, segments in which the band seemed to be going through the motions rather than illuminating the irresistibly swinging arrangements. And some of the newer pieces -- including some of the Christmas tunes -- lost touch with the trademark Basie sound. Most curious, singer Melba Joyce's otherwise spirited singing was undercut by an arrangement of "The Christmas Song" that was clearly not written for her vocal range.

Still, it's hard to go wrong with Count Basie and Christmas. They may not often be heard in the same sentence, but they unquestionably are part of the same spirit.

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