A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! includes 11 holiday tracks featuring special guests Johnny Mathis, Ledisi, Ellis Marsalis, and Carmen Bradford
Coinciding with celebrating its 80th anniversary, the legendary Count Basie Orchestra continues to make music history with the November 6th, 2015 release of A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! on Concord Jazz. The first full-length, yuletide album in the expansive Basie discography, the album boasts classic holiday songs, rendered in quintessential Basie style, under the masterful direction of longtime Basie trumpeter Scotty Barnhart and produced by seven-time Grammy winner and former Basie drummer Gregg Field.
The disc also showcases such guest artists as legendary singer Johnny Mathis, award-winning R&B singer Ledisi, veteran jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, and iconic tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson (famous for being the soloist on Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme”). The album also represents the return of the multi-Grammy winning Basie composer-arranger Sammy Nestico and the 2015 multi-Grammy winning arranger Gordon Goodwin. The results are blues-soaked, joy-filled holiday treats that will delight and warm the hearts of Basie die-hard fans and new fans alike!
“I think [Count Basie] would be proud if he heard this record,” says Barnhart, who conceived the idea of focusing on Christmas music. When asked how he and the orchestra were able to channel the essence of Basie into the repertoire, Barnhart explains, “We have 80 years of history on our side.”
A self-described Basie fanatic since the age of nine, Barnhart says that through vigorous study of Basie’s music and being a member of the orchestra for 22 years, he knows the ins and outs of the Count’s signature sound. “The Basie orchestra has always had a very distinct way of sounding and a way of playing based around the blues. It’s all about the feeling of the blues,” Barnhart says.
The orchestra brings Barnhart’s point home at the very beginning with the swaggering take of “Jingle Bells,” featuring a flinty trumpet solo from Bruce Harris and an arrangement from Nestico, who returns to the band after 35 years.
Ellis Marsalis initiates “Let It Snow,” in a winning rendition that slowly gains momentum thanks to the superb rhythm section of drummer Clayton Cameron, bassist Marcus McClaurine, and guitarist Will Matthews. The song’s arranger, Kris Johnson also delivers a jovial trumpet solo.
The treatment of “It’s the Holiday Season” becomes the perfect vehicle for Mathis’ lustrous tenor voice as it glides across Goodwin’s strutting chart. “When we had the first meeting to determine who would we wanted as special guests, I kept thinking Johnny Mathis,” Barnhart recalls, “As soon as the first day of the Christmas season starts, you hear his voice. I knew we had to get him.” Barnhart handles the arrangement for the classic, “Silent Night,” on which alto saxophonist Marshall McDonald articulates the hymnal melody, while the orchestra envelops him with dusky horn timbres. Another Nestico arrangement occurs on the transfixing reading of “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslas,” which showcases Llew Matthews’ crisp, economical approach at the piano and Doug Lawrence’s sultry tenor saxophone solo.
Ledisi, the dynamic R&B singer and Billboard #1 Urban Contemporary Artist of 2014 –renowned for her performance on the Oscar and Grammy-awarding winning song “Glory” from the critically acclaimed movie, Selma – lights up Goodwin’s sumptuous arrangement of “The Christmas Song.” The sensuous tone of Doug Lawrence’s tenor saxophone returns for yet another remarkable aside.
“Little Drummer Boy” stomps to a quintessential Kansas City swing via Barnhart’s vivacious arrangement, which becomes a platform for succinct solos from pianist Matthews, baritone saxophonist Jay Brandford, piccolo player Cleave Guyton, Jr., drummer Cameron, and trumpeters Endre Rice and the arranger. Next, the brass heavy Goodwin-arranged version of “Sleigh Ride” shimmers with sanguine solos from bass trombonist Wendell Kelly, baritone saxophonist Jay Brandford, and trumpeter Barnhart.
The Count Basie Orchestra’s long-time vocalist Carmen Bradford invigorates Frank Foster’s –another Basie alumni – magical arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” To close the album admirably, Barnhart takes center stage on his sparkling arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” on which he demonstrates his buttery tone and a knack for crafting melodically savvy improvisations.
As an encore, the orchestra sends heartfelt thoughts with the classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” only this time in a joy filled and swinging arrangement by Barnhart, featuring Ellis Marsalis on piano and tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, with Marsalis concluding the album with Basie’s signature “plink-plink-plink” piano ending.
Leading a formidable and preeminent jazz institution as the Count Basie Orchestra is no small feat. But when Barnhart describes his ascension from being a band member to music director, he describes it as destiny. “I’m supposed to be doing what I’m doing,” he enthuses before revealing that he first started listening to Basie’s music before he was even a teenager. When he was a student at Gordon High School in Decatur, Georgia, his band director encouraged him to see the Basie Orchestra in performance, which became a personal revelation for the impressionable music hopeful.
Barnhart continued his formal music studies at Florida A&M University. He also wrote The World of Jazz Trumpet – A Comprehensive History and Practical Philosophy and is a jazz professor at Florida State University.
When asked what it takes to be a member of the Basie Orchestra, Barnhart cites two essential qualities: intuitive musicianship and professional temperament. “You have to listen and let the music tell you what to play. You can’t come in with any preconceived notions. You have to listen to what the band’s doing and figure out how to play from that,” he explains. “Secondly, you have to be a nice human being. No one’s perfect, but Count Basie was a very nice man. You have to be a very even-tempered person as much as you can, and someone who thinks before they talk or act. Basie always handled things in a very professional way, no matter what happened.”