The Count Basie Orchestra in Tokyo

John Robert Brown

The denying of expectations being an essential part of the jazz game - you know, sound of surprise and all that - I should have shed all preconceptions before visiting the Tokyo Blue Note to hear the Count Basie Orchestra.

The Blue Note moved to its present location about a year ago. A visit begins ordinarily enough. You descend from the entrance steps beneath large black and white photos of Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson and others. The welcome surprise at the first basement level is the pleasant helpfulness of the plentiful staff (English spoken here), then the roomy waiting area and the chic modern atmosphere. There's Internet access and music magazines to entertain you while waiting for a table. The list of forthcoming attractions looks good. Lee Ritenour, Chick Corea and David Sanborn are all coming shortly. The previous week I'd caught the Michel Camilo Trio here.

Next you are ushered ever deeper underground to a second basement level, the club proper, accommodating three hundred patrons. There's a variety of seating, copious staff to escort you to your table, and a full menu offering both Japanese and Western food, with seasonal variations. Serving staff wear tiny radio headsets for smooth coordination. Waiters duck out of your way when passing in front of the stage. They are noticeably sensitive about using tills and cash machines during the quiet passages. Sight lines to the stage are good. There's enough light to be able to see what you're eating.

In a country where the superb trains run exactly on time, and meticulous care is taken with everything, it shouldn't have been a surprise that the show was counted down promptly. Of course, what else? Grover Mitchell led his Count Basie Orchestra out at seven p.m. sharp, to a full house, swinging comfortably into Frank Foster's Shiny Stockings. Appropriately, given the opener, clothing was on my mind: the seventeen musicians turned out wearing cream-coloured suits exactly like the one I'd was wearing that evening. That was another surprise, though trivial, and soon forgotten in the joy created by the band's superb sound.

Up next was Quincy Jones' Dum Dum, shooting along at eighty-bars-a minute, held on target by Butch Miles' drumming. Solos here from Marshall McDonald on alto and Kenny Hing on tenor. Then followed Mellotone, and Ernie Wilkins' Way Out West, with a poised solo from Shawn Edmonds' trumpet. A big surprise here: the audience clapped enthusiastically on the offbeat through much of this chart. I can't imagine that happening in Europe, or America.Then Benny Carter's Miss Missouri, from his Kansas City Suite, preceded Ernie Wilkins' Right On, Right On.

Vocalist James Davies did a short spot, with a couple of blues and My Romance. It's a long way to travel to sing three songs. Then back to the band, with Cute and Li'l' Darlin', the latter preceded by a clever guitar interlude from Will Matthews. Next came Good Times Blues, and a Butch Miles feature written and arranged by Kenny Hing, The Drum Thing.

If nothing else, the set reminded me of the superiority of composer Hefti's contribution to the Basie book. Always melodically strong, his pieces swing, invariably get to the heart of what the Basie band is about, yet still leave one wanting more.

Commendably, the musicians showed excellent bonhomie on the stand. They smiled, gave handshakes after solos, paid attention to each others' improvisations and acknowledged the enthusiastic Tokyo audience. The people had each paid a whopping ¥8,400 to get in. That's more than forty pounds, before drinks and food. Tokyo isn't cheap, in any sense of the word.

Lighting and sound were excellent, sight lines good, the grand piano well-tuned and in good condition. My only criticism was that Grover Mitchell's announcements of soloists' names could have been more carefully enunciated, and it would have been good to have heard more of his trombone playing. But his diffidence was understandable; after all, he was sitting on top of a band of good soloists, some of whom had little to do.v

What more could anyone want? Well, as it's the Basie Band, One O'Clock Jump and Jumpin' at the Woodside, I guess and - of course - these were given as encores.

And that was it. Short, but very sweet. Time for the guys to prepare for the second show, and for me to ascend into the concrete bungle of Tokyo, once again to get lost, straining my Japanese to its pathetic limit asking the way during the walk to my hotel.

That I had expected.

This review first appeared in Jazz Review magazine, and is used here by permission of the editor.
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