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Riffing with the swing
Count Basie set up his legendary orchestra 77 years ago and it still embodies rhythms of the era.Picture: ABC

Music can be a collection of notes and rhythms or it can be something which touches your soul. Dennis Mackrel believes the latter is what's truly important and it's that spirit he brings to the Count Basie Orchestra.

He's the director of the 77-year- old orchestra which is the living embodiment of 30s and 40s swing, one of the most exuberant and irresistible sounds that ever shook the Western world.

Formed by the late Count Basie, the 18-piece orchestra features a peerless array of instrumentalists with combined credentials that have topped the international jazz world for decades. Considered one of the jazz world's elite performance groups, it has won 17 Grammys and a slew of awards alongside more than 100 albums in its catalogue.

From Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, the orchestra has provided the supremely distinctive swing behind some of the greatest singers of the 20th century.

At 20, Mackrel was the last drummer to be personally hired by Basie a few years before his death in 1984. He spent six years with the group and then left to play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and a number of other big bands. In September 2010, the musician, composer and arranger returned to the orchestra as director after the retirement of trombonist Bill Hughes.

The 50-year-old Nebraskan who started playing the drums at the age of two, says such is the depth and calibre of the group, there are close to 900 tunes in its repertoire, a heady number of pieces for any new musician to learn.

These days the orchestra carries about 80-120 pieces of music with it, keeping in mind that five minutes is often considered long for a song of this era.

"It was like Alice going down the rabbit hole," Mackrel fondly remembers. "Mr Basie was like a grandfather. He had a talent in that he had a personal relationship with everyone in the orchestra.

"I was a very young and raw musician and he really helped me develop and become someone who had the ability to play with a lot of great musicians. He saw something in me I hadn't yet seen. He was a great teacher and a great person to be around."

Mackrel says people who like playing music, having a good time and being around each other sums up much of the ethos of the orchestra. The orchestra's youngest musician is in his early 20s, ranging right up to the oldest player in his 70s.

The musical director says the joy of such a mixed group of gentlemen is that they are always learning from each other. "One thing about this orchestra you begin to understand is that so many other bands begin here," he says.

"So many musical roads lead here, what Mr Basie created and everyone followed or evolved. Loving this music, you realise why it's so big still."

The Count Basie Orchestra performs at the Perth Concert Hall on October 14. Tickets through Ticketek.