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Still Swinging With Style

4 October 2012 | 8:00 am | Jake Dennis

That is crucial for the success of any group whether it’s a band, a football team, or people working in an office. A good band sounds like one band

Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. are among the jazz luminaries who have performed with the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra since they formed in the mid 1930s. “We've been together longer than The Rolling Stones,” declares Dennis Mackrel proudly. He attributes the strength of the 18-piece orchestra to its commitment to music and each other. “This band really has a history together. Not only are they great musicians themselves but they can second-guess each other. It's like when you dance with a partner for many years; you can anticipate their movements.” This synergy is the foundation of their success.

“The most important quality for a big band is unity,” Mackrel argues. “That is crucial for the success of any group whether it's a band, a football team, or people working in an office. A good band sounds like one band.” Mackrel, who was 21 when he was chosen by the late Count Basie, who passed away in 1984 just shy of his 80th year, to join the Big Band he now leads, remembers the Count with reverence. “Mr Basie was not only a great musician but he was a very straightforward, no-nonsense man who commanded excellence not by being a tyrant or dictator. He was just a very dignified person and you just wanted to give him nothing short of your best.”

William “Count” Basie was “like a grandfather” to Mackrel, who fondly remembers the jazz legend as a “person who was just very easy to be around. He could put you at ease with just a few words. He was concerned about me as a person, not just a drummer.” Basie's musicality and leadership will obviously never be forgotten by the band's musical director. “When he would play a solo, it wouldn't be very long, but you can't imagine a better solo. He was very much like that as a leader. He never said a lot… but when he spoke you knew, 'this is really, really important.'”

Mackrel, who has played drums for American vocalists as diverse as Dinah Shore, Billy Eckstine, Carmen McCrae and Tony Bennett, is extremely grateful for such experiences. “This is the greatest job in the world. You get a chance to go all over the world, meet nice people and play good music. I can't imagine why anybody wouldn't want to do this for a living. I definitely don't see a reason to stop.

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“We're really, really excited to come to Australia,” he admits. “Our orchestra has been successful over the years because we have reached many, many people. Music is supposed to be empowering… not make you feel depressed or think, 'I'll never be able to do that.' Music is supposed to lift you up. Hopefully, that's what people will feel when they leave our concerts.”

Fans can rest assured that the band will perform the classics that made them famous. April in Paris, Shiny Stockings and Little Darling are among the standards that fans can expect. Australian audiences will be treated to instrumentals like April In Paris in the first half of the show before vocalist Carmen Bradford, who Mackrel describes as “one of the strongest vocalists out there today”, joins the band for the second half of the show. “She's always as perfect as you can get. She really understands the history of our band and she can really sing the blues.”

Ultimately, the elite jazz ensemble's commitment to making people happy playing the cream of the Great American Songbook will ensure their continued success. “This is very happy music, it's supposed to give you energy… make you wanna dance. That's our mission: to get you swinging and get you happy. If you feel better than you did when you came in, then we did our job.”

Wednesday 10th October - Arts Centre Melbounrne
Thursday 11th October - QPAC Brisbane
Saturday 13th October - Sydney Opera House
Sunday 14th October - Perth Concert Hall