Count Basie Orchestra, Grover Michell conducting

Count Basie Orchestra & The Cunninghams
New Trier High School Jazz Festival, Winnetka, IL
reviewed by Richard J. Bianchino
photos by Jim Warrick

February 8, 2003

CBO photo by Jim Warrick of New Trier High School

The CBO celebrated the begginning of its US Winter Tour with the band's very first ever live internet broadcast. The event was held at the New Trier High School Jazz Fest in Winnetka, IL and was a huge success. The orchestra took to the stage at 8:30 p.m. and opened with the Neal Hefti composition "Splanky" arranged by Sam Nestico, a major contributor to the band's book throughout the Pablo Records era. Marshall McDonald contributed the sax solo. The second number, Gershwin's "Strike Up The Band," featured Kenny "Doc" Hing on tenor and Butch Miles on drums. Butch had a stint with the Basie band from 1975-1980 and recently rejoined in 1997.

Next came Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone" with arrangement by Frank Foster. The great composer/arranger Ernie Wilkins is credited with "Way Out Basie." John Kelson played lead alto on this selection. "Basically Yours," written by another ex-Basie member (1954-63) trumpeter/cornetist Tad Jones, followed. This featuring the piano of Tony Suggs. The band then stepped up the tempo with the Erine Wilkins' composition "Basie Power" before conductor Grover Mitchell introduced jazz vocal duo The Cunninghams.

The Cunninghams

The Cunninghams photo by Jim Warrick

Although you may not have heard of them, The Cunninghams have been on the jazz scene for years. They were nominated for a Grammy in 1989, only to lose out to Take Six. And Don Cunningham was percussionist with Johnny Mathis for many years. Extremely popular and adored in Japan, they have just recently begun to get the recognition they so well deserve. Being chosen to tour with the Basie Band is perhaps the beginning of a new era for this dynamic duo.

The CBO match up with Don and Alicia Cunningham is a good one. They are already familiar with many of the Basie charts. One reason being their recent work with the Jimmy Wilkins Orchestra. Jimmy is the brother of the late Ernie Wilkins, long time composer/arranger for the Count Bassie Orchestra. In 1995 he decided that Ernie's works should be performed. So he put together his Las Vegas band to play his brother's book. The Cunninghams have been playing with that orchestra, and its rhythm section, since 1998.

In the orchestra's first set the duo sang two numbers - the very swinging "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and Neal Hefti's "Two For The Blues," which included a medley of "Everyday I Have The Blues" and "Stormy Monday." The Cunninghams add these songs out of their love for Joe Williams, a Las Vegas resident who passed on in March 1999. The vocalists were given a warm welcome by both Grover Mitchell and the audience for their first ever Basie performance. The last song played by the band was "The Drum Thing," composed by Bob Ojeda, featuring Butch Miles on percussion.

After a fifteen minute break the band returned starting, what was to be a short set, with Frank Foster's "Shiny Silk Stockings." Next was "Duet," another Neal Hefti tune. Grover Mitchell then brought back The Cunninghams for their rendition of "Flying Home," complete with a spirited scat and saxophone exchange courtesy of Don Cunningham and Kenny Hing. The night's closure was the Ernie Wilkins composition "Basie." Simply titled, but very appropriate for an evening of beautiful big band music.

Article copyright © 2003 by R.J. Bianchino & Moondog Productions. Text photos of the CBO & The Cunninghams by Jim Warrick (New Trier High School)

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