I was privileged to hear two of the finest current jazz groups at the Symphony Center on Friday night in a joint concert of the Joey DeFrancesco Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra. Joey DeFrancesco is a relatively new musical phenomenom, having released his first recording in 1989. The Count Basie Orchestra, on the other hand, has endured from 1936 to the present, 23 years after the Count’s death, proving its greatness in the industry.
Described as “the baddest B-3 burner in the business,” organist Joey DeFrancesco led his trio in four songs, bringing vocalist Colleen McNabb onstage for a ballad. DeFrancesco’s playing was the main attraction as he soloed on five jazz standards including “The More I See You” and “East of the Sun.” DeFrancesco expertly integrated the lines of the original piece into his own solos, and his hands moved with speed and dexterity across the keys. Occasionally, DeFrancesco almost dropped his right hand on the keyboard to add chords and figures with a seemingly uncaring air. Like any great artist, DeFrancesco made playing the organ look easy as he just seemed to play what he felt, without thinking too much about the technicalities of the music.
After intermission, the Count Basie Orchestra took the stage, led by Bill Hughes, a trombonist in Basie’s original band. The 18-piece band played songs like “Lil Darlin” and “Good Times Blues,” which were written by Basie or musicians in his band, as well as standard jazz pieces like the ballad “Stardust.” Vocalist Melba Joyce came out for two tunes, including a spirited rendition of “All of Me,” and most of the songs had two solos which featured the outstanding ability of each individual musician. Tony Suggs, the pianist for the group, probably garnered the most attention as he had the task of filling Count Basie’s place. He did so admirably, maintaining Basie’s minimalist style while not overly imitating it. I was also particularly impressed by an extended drum solo by Butch Miles, an extremely accomplished drummer hired by Basie.
One of the most impressive aspects of the band was their excellent use of contrasting dynamics. The band could change volume levels in seconds, and sounded great when blowing fortissimo as well as playing at the softest possible level. The sound of the each section, when the members played in unison, sounded like one voice rather than three different instruments, as in the case of the saxophones. This was particularly noticeable during the extremely tricky and fast-paced saxophone solo in “The Hawk.”
The Count Basie Orchestra was serious about the music, but definitely retained a sense of humor. During a bass solo in “Good Times Blues,” the bassist played the first few notes of “Here Comes the Bride” and the other band members stood up and started wildly shaking their heads and waving their arms at him. In fitting with this blend of humor and excellent musicianship, the last song of the concert had six false endings before finally finishing with crashing cymbals and an altissimo trumpet blast.