For Basie, Red Hot Blues

The blues settled into Alice Tully Hall on Thursday night with the arrival of the singer Dennis Rowland. Mr. Rowland was there to play the role of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s show, ‘‘Swingin’ the Blues for Count Basie.’‘ He’s a spectacular blues singer, pleading, hollering with joy, opening his eyes to the sky to emphasize the words, holding out his heart in his hands. And he perfectly captured the music’s emotional complexity: in ‘‘Goin’ to Chicago,’‘ taken at a euphoric dance tempo, he sang some sweet lines of revenge to a lying lover, then finished up by addressing the mean and evil woman with, ‘‘But you got my brand of honey, so I’ll put up with you.’‘ It was at once honest and liberating; what Mr. Rowland dispenses should be sold at drugstores.

The rest of the concert, conducted by the ex-Basie-ite Frank Foster and spread over two hours, was oddly disjointed. The program took on Count Basie’s immense output between the late 1930’s and the late 1960’s, divided between his two great bands, the early Old Testament band and the later New Testament band. The music from the two periods is almost entirely different and the contrast was jarring.

The older music fared better. Its deep blues sensibility, the hard riffing, the immediate emotionalism of the music are unchanged by time; it all still works. The riff esthetic, where the short, savage punctuation rips up the music, is still an integral part of American musical culture; the music sounded modern. In ‘‘Sent for You Yesterday,’‘ the orchestra’s drummer, Lewis Nash, played the original explosions by Jo Jones against riffs; in ‘‘Every Tub,’‘ the riffs surged.

The New Testament band music sounded wan, through no fault of its own. Its cool precision is the sound of countless advertisements, wedding bands and college jazz groups. It has been in some ways contaminated by association, and with its sense of moderation, its pre-Vietnam optimism, it appeared almost naive. What saved the music by the original Basie band was the execution, with bent notes and slurs and the distinct intonation of the sections; its excellence came not from the arrangements, but from the musicians. And though the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is filled with fine players, it takes years of playing together to be able to transform those arrangements into the living item that the Count Basie band made distinct.

In part, the music never quite reached combustion because the soloists weren’t let go. Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the trumpeter Jon Faddis were both sitting in the trumpet section. They are legendary competitors, and both were playing the music of a band that was made up of equally legendary competitors; it seemed like a waste of talent not to let them fill the hall with their abilities.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

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