Oh, if Preston Love Sr. could have come back from the grave to join in Omaha’s Valentine’s night reunion with Count Basie’s band.
As pointed out by current bandleader Scotty Barnhart, the Count Basie Orchestra — still going strong nearly 80 years after its birth in Kansas City — boasted no fewer than five musical links to Omaha as it shared the Holland Performing Arts Center’s main stage Friday night with the fabulous vocal jazz quartet New York Voices.
The list begins with string bassist and Omaha native Marcus McLaurine, one of two current band members who played with Basie himself before his 1984 death. Then came the three songs on the set list (“Li’l Darlin,” “Whirlywinds” and “Cute”) written by trumpeter Neal Hefti, who graduated from North High School in 1941 and penned many arrangements for the Basie band in the 1950s.
Finally, there was fill-in alto saxophonist Mark Benson, who teaches instrumental music at Bellevue’s Mission Middle School and has played locally with the Omaha Big Band the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra. With sax man Marshall McDonald stranded by an East Coast storm, Benson sat down in the Basie band’s front row just as Love — who graduated from North three years before Hefti and also knew McLaurine — had done in the 1940s.
Love, who died in 2004, missed the opening of the Holland by a year. Perhaps other Omaha jazz fans at Friday night’s concert found themselves wondering what he might have thought of the Basie band’s current lineup. It seems reasonable to think he would have appreciated the band’s enduring ability to lure top talent and preserve the tight ensemble sounds and exciting arrangements that lifted Basie to stardom in the 1930s.
The 17-piece band (not counting Barnhart, who took a couple of solos himself) performed on its own for half the concert and accompanied New York Voices on the rest. A long line of outstanding soloists emerged from the ensemble’s wind sections, including compelling turns by Cleave Guyton, sitting next to Benson, on both alto sax and flute.
McLaurine, who has had a long and active career since his Omaha days, turned in an intricate bass solo on “From One to Another” featuring crystal-clear notes picked at the peak of the instrument’s range. Sitting at the Count’s old throne was pianist Lindsey Sarjeant, who knew when to duplicate Basie’s typically sparse solo style and when to let loose with cascading blues scales that testify to his own virtuosity.
In sharing the stage with New York Voices, the Basie band welcomed back a frequent performing and recording partner with whom it shares one of its 17 Grammy Awards. The quartet stands firmly in the great tradition of “vocalese” jazz made famous by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and continued by The Manhattan Transfer, which based its own signature harmonies on the sounds of the Basie sax section.
Individually and collectively, Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge, Kim Nazarian and Lauren Kinhan know how to thrill and stun audiences with their vocal production. Their harmonies were breathtakingly deep and resonant in “Devil May Care,” creative and poignant in “For All We Know” and pleasantly piercing in “Avalon.”
While “scat” singing imitates jazz instruments with vocal effects and nonsense syllables, vocalese goes one step further by matching lyrics to famous jazz solos transcribed to sheet music. New York Voices proved its mastery of the concept with “In a Mellow Tone,” simulating hot sax solos before the women wailed like trumpets and the men rumbled like trombones.