The title of the show "Jazz Roots" took on a double meaning at The Smith Center's Reynolds Hall on Sunday night. Count Basie Orchestra director Dennis Mackrel laid it out when he said the concert was a return to his own roots as a product of Clark High School and the UNLV jazz program back in the 1970s.
Mackrel explained that he might never have hooked up with the Basie band had it not been for one of the subjects of the tribute, the late Joe Williams. Before giving a shout-out to Williams' widow, Jillean, who appeared happily moved by the gesture, Mackrel recalled how Joe used to hang out around the jazz program to encourage the students' musical journeys.
And what a journey Mackrel and the band took us on. After sharp, swinging instrumental favorites including "Who? Me?" "April In Paris" and the band's signature "One O'Clock Jump," the first of three vocalists, Kevin Mahogany, ambled out in a cream-colored pinstriped suit for "Every Day I Have the Blues" in a voice wonderfully reminiscent of Joe Williams without being an imitation.
Mahogany kept the smooth sounds coming with his relaxed, deep bass on "Alright, OK, You Win." He noted that as a Kansas City kid, he was fulfilling a lifelong by singing with the Basie band.
Next up was Janis Siegel, who performed here with the Manhattan Transfer just a couple of weeks ago. Like her bandmates, Siegel has had a fine solo career. She spoke a little too professorially for me, reading from biographical notes about Ella Fitzgerald that seemed a little out of place.
As good as her singing was, it sounded as if she was trying too hard to re-create Ella's recordings instead of just letting her own interpretation of Ella shine. Not that she had notes out of tune or out of place on "A Tisket, A Tasket" "Oh, Lady Be Good" or "Too Darn Hot." Siegel's fine singing just came across as rehearsed instead of from the heart.
Then the phenomenal youngster from Canada, Nikki Yanofsky (OK, she's 20 now) bounced out, woke everybody up and proved herself the Red Bull to Siegel's vodka tonic. She can really rip, with an incredible range, a solid scat and a perky spunk that says, "I'm good, I know it, and that's just fine, so come on along for the ride" - all without coming across as cocky or in over her head.
I wasn't around to see the young Ella Fitzgerald, but Yanofsky's free and easy spirit and obvious joy for performing made me think I was seeing someone perhaps walking that same path with stellar renditions of "And the Angels Sing" "Mr. Paganini" "Lullaby of Birdland" and "I Got Rhythm."
There were a couple of grumblings from the audience on the way out that the 16-piece Basie band was too often left to twiddle its thumbs as the soloists didn't have charts for all their songs, playing instead with the solid rhythm section of Reggie Thomas, piano, Marion Felder, drums, and Marcus McLaurine, bass.
But, after a satisfying visit to "Jazz Roots" with plenty of tasty twists and turns along the way, this reviewer had no complaints.