Thirty-two musicians and two vocalists were in rotation for this tribute to the great big band leader Count Basie. Basie once said the secret to swing was to “swing easy,” and director Jon Nathan led the ensembles with a Basie-esque light touch. Internal passion and power were not in short supply with these students — nor scope, for that matter. This program kept a brisk pace, knocking through nearly a dozen-and-a-half Basie favorites, including “April in Paris” as encore. Nathan has told me that the great pleasure of working with these students is their intelligence, well-rounded lives, and work-ethic. Music may not be their life focus — only a few are music majors — but they know how to throw themselves into a challenge. And they evidently love learning to swing.
Nathan drew upon original arrangements by Freddie Green, Frank Foster, Neal Hefti, and other Basie arrangers, and the chief pleasures of the evening were wind choruses and overall ensemble sound. No truly outstanding wind soloists emerged, although tenor saxophonist James Garcia played some fine lines on Flight of the Foo Bird, and Trombonist Cameron Swanson played lyrically in Deedle’s Blues. The rhythm sections, on the other, were stocked with several articulate soloists, including guitarist Danny Toomey who spread out nicely on You Can Have It. Drummer Nick Diamantides gave powerful definition to the first set, kicking hard with the dynamic contrasts, and displaying a great sense of fun. Shane Soto gave the only extensive drum solo of the evening, several exhilarating choruses on the concluding Whirlybird. And guitarist Soham Mistry displayed catchy melodic sense and wonderful facility on Whirlybird and Blee Blop Blues.
Collaborations with vocalists were integral to the big band era, and this show was no exception. Two female vocalists were on hand for favorites. Australian study-abroad student Alex Siegers gave her Santa Barbara swan song at this concert, before heading back home Down Under. Siegers, who gained attention in recent months for her impressive UCSB Amplified solo video performances, is a developed jazz singer with irresistible stage presence. Siegers not only kicked it up on Deedle’s Blues and You Can Have It, but proved a persuasive balladeer on We’ll Be Together Again, which featured tender keyboard lines by Nick Ray. Isabel Petty stepped to the mic in the second half, giving fine voice to the well-known hits I’m Beginning to See the Light and Ain’t Misbehavin’. And in a magnetic programmatic moment, both vocalists came together to co-sing Honeysuckle Rose.
Overall, the evening was a glimpse into a living, thriving, well-directed jazz laboratory. Nathan thrives on challenging these musicians, using the quick clip of the quarter system to further squeeze the pace; which becomes a life lesson not only for professional music, but any profession. What a concert like this might lack in overall refinement is more than made up in vitality. We only have to remember the informality and open-texture of Basie’s leadership to grasp how appropriate this tribute really was.