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Kenny G Delights at Historic Count Basie Theatre

By M D Caprario

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The historic Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, New Jersey’s gem entertainment venue, was host to the very modern performer Kenny G recently when he presented his Christmas show at this newly renovated location.   

Kenny G dazzles the crowd with opening numbers

Built in 1926, the venerable “ Basie” has seen several renovations since then, including seat replacement in the 1980’s by way of those donated from, of all places, Carnegie Hall.   However, the most significant work was completed this past year, undertaking to not only restore the hall to its former glory, but also to include engineering as well as comfort/convenience updates that weren’t available at the time it was built.   Improvements were recently unveiled as the “ Basie” opened with what can only be described as a stellar calendar which included Kenny G’s “Christmas.”
The theater’s promotional information about the Kenny G performance states that he is a “longtime aviator,” and, therefore, “no stranger to risk-taking.”   He certainly does have a broad range of experiences in the music industry, what with having played professionally with groups like Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra and Jeff Lorber Fusion, and also having produced in conjunction with Arista Records three well-received jazz albums ( Kenny G, G-Force and Gravity).   This show exemplified the performer’s broad range of talents.

Kenny G's stage presence as smooth as his music

On this particular December night at the “Basie,” “G” presented his version of “Christmas,” and what a version it was!    The stage was decorated by way of a menorah nestled into the drummer’s set (lit during the first half of the performance) and a sweet little Christmas tree emblazoned with lights sitting on top of the pianist’s grand piano (lit during the second half of the performance).   Spectacular, kaleidoscope lighting effects were used, and throughout the nearly two and a half hour show, holiday footage- snow scenes and even Santa and reindeer flying through the sky- was projected in combination with live action shots on stage.   It was a masterful blend using, as G joked, the “new PhotoShop skills" of one of his crew.
“I’m going to be playing one half ‘old,’ and one half ‘new,’” "G" told me prior to the show while signing purchased memorabilia for fans.   I kidded with him and told him “but it will be ALL Kenny G, right?”   He only smiled, distracted with watching for those folks who had purchased items that made them eligible for a drawing to win his prototype saxophone.  (A new creative endeavor for him, his line of instruments will be made available to the public shortly.)   But he delivered musically later- as well as by way of gifting one lucky couple with a shiny, new tenor sax, kidding with the audience by announcing that he would be playing it that night but, before giving it away, would promise he wouldn't “even clean the spit out of it before you go.”
"G" startled some of the crowd when, changed out of his jeans and into a loose, silver-gray silk suit jacket and matching slacks, he didn’t appear on stage at the start of the concert, but entered by way of the back of the house, seeming to creep in and then magically appear out of nowhere in the dark playing his sax.   He astounded the full-house crowd, playing his way up the center aisle and, eventually, settling onto a platform that kept him above the crowd but still within it and finishing his opening number with a note he seemed to sustain for over two full minutes. The combination of spot lighting, specialty lighting and the performer’s own masterful breathing techniques provided a dramatic and, well, almost breath-taking start to a full and rich evening of music and entertainment.

Guitarist Robert Ramper joins Kenny G for stirring number

“It’s nice to be in Red Bank during the winter,” G joked once on stage (it was a cold night), adding that he was very happy to be at the “Basie” and to be playing to such an enthusiastic audience- particularly after having just come up on a long bus ride from Baltimore.   As though wanting to gift the audience for their enthusiastic welcome, he asked if playing songs everyone knew in the first half, breaking for intermission, and then playing Christmas songs in the latter half was acceptable to them.   “I thought so,” he laughed when the audience responded with claps and cheers.   “Before I go on though, there’s something I have to tell you,” he said.   “See this?” he asked, pulling a small, white object out of one trouser pocket.  “This is a hand warmer.   It feels wonderful on my fingers and hands.   You’re going to see me reach into my pocket- into the other one, too, because I’ve got another one there- and sort of touch them.   I just didn’t want you to think I was doing anything else.” The crowd roared with laughter.   "G" would go on to demonstrate how he could inhale through his nose simultaneously with producing breath to sustain his notes- it was comedic as well as informative.
The band started in with the soulful favorites and moved to the funkier ones, eventually launching into what I can only describe as an acoustic “parade” with wild drumming and percussion playing that showcased not only drummer Daniel Bejaraneo’s talents but also percussionist Ron Powell’s abilities as a musician, showman, and “twirler” of musical instruments.

Kenny G with new instrument

G and his team truly delivered with "G-b," a soulful keyboard and sax number, featuring long-time pianist Robert Ramper, moving to “ Forever,” featuring the talents of another long-time G support musician, beret-wearing guitarist John Raymond.   The group then treated the audience with a taste of their new, Latin CD. 
“We want to give you a sampling so as to give you an idea of the vibe of the CD,” G explained.   If the entire CD is only half as good as the “sampling,” then it is well worth hearing.   Samba rhythms and gorgeous flamenco-style guitar blended into rumba beats, all while the group played front-and-center at a sophisticated percussion set-up.    Personally, after hearing the group’s rendition of “ Besame Mucho,” I think they may have won themselves an even broader listening audience market.
G and friends shared an impressive rendition of “ Sleigh Ride,” a song introduced by G as being “a 25 on a scale of 1 to 10 of difficulty (to play)” due to all the key changes.   He requested that his band allow him to set the pace- an anticipated slow pace, so that he could play, as he said it, “at least 89% of the song right.”   Of course, predictably, by the third repeat, the group worked up to a fever pitch, Kenny keeping up magnificently all along and then launching into what I can only describe as a version of saxophone “scatting.”
“Whew,” G announced when they were through and acknowledging thunderous applause.

A memorable “ What a Wonderful World” saw G “playing along with” Satchmo-at least, virtually- and the combination of the beloved deceased crooner’s song on film and G’s instrumental on stage was a heady one.
A memorable “saxy” version of “ Pick Up the Pieces” preceded bassist Vail Johnson’s complicated and impressive solo, then the group moved into “ Cadenza,” what they described as “Kenny’s chance to show off his 41 years of practice.”   He definitely didn’t disappoint, running scales like no tomorrow.   “ Songbird,” described by the group as “the song that changed Kenny’s life” (since it catapulted G to stardom many years ago) ended the evening on a more than memorable note.

The Count Basie Theatre is looking beautiful, is quite comfortable, has great acoustics, and was a lovely, not-too-big-and-not-too-small venue for this show.   I anticipate it to be the same for other, similar performers.   Upcoming events at the “Basie” include, of course, more holiday fare, and also appearances by Jon Bon Jovi, BB King, Boz Skaggs, David Bromberg, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Gary US Bonds, Bobby Bandiera, Nicole Atkins, Brian Fallon, Connie Francis, Tim McLoone and the Shirleys, The Jersey Shore Rock-N-Soul Revue, Johnnie Mathis, Willie Nelson, and Rufus Wainwright.
The Count Basie Theatre is located at 99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, New Jersey, 07701.   (That’s exit 109 off the Garden State Parkway.)   More information about the Count Basie Theatre and its programs can be obtained by visiting the web site:   www.countbasietheatre.org or by calling:   732/842-9000.   The theatre is conveniently located within walking distance from the New Jersey Transit Jersey Coast train line, which runs from Manhattan, New York, down to Bay Head, New Jersey.  

Red Bank, itself, is a destination town boasting some of the finest eateries, hotels, art galleries, antique shops, retail shops and parks, and the Theatre partners with certain hotels.   Make the “Basie” your next entertainment destination.   Check it out by visiting the web site.  

Text copyright 2008 M D Caprario
Photos copyright 2008 Tom Babcock

*A huge “thank you” to my new friends Debbie and Tom Babcock, who sat next to me at the performance and volunteered their fabulous photos when they learned we’d had camera difficulties!
M D Caprario is a writer and editor working in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and other places where great entertainment and literary events happen.   Reach her at:   [email protected]

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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