“They outdid themselves on that last one,” said an audience member at Schenectady County Community College on Tuesday night as the Empire Jazz Orchestra took an intermission after roaring through “Time Check,” a Don Menza arrangement. And that was only the half of it.
The EJO, resident jazz band at the college, was joined by saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman for the second part of a concert that showed off the many facets of big-band jazz.
Newman, longtime member of the Ray Charles Orchestra, was in fine form as he stood on front of the orchestra conducted by music director Bill Meckley. The first tune, a head-shaker by Newman called “Keep the Spirits Singing,” showed off his big, full tenor sax sound in front of some equally full ensemble work. Trombonist Gary Barrow tore off a nice solo himself.
Newman’s second piece, “Christo Redentor,” showed off his soulful alto sax over some rich ensemble work. Mark Foster’s vibes and Jack Fragomeni’s bluesy guitar chords added to the cushion of sound under Newman, who reached a climactic moment by climbing up to a barely audible, almost sighing note.
He broke out his flute for “Pharoah’s Gold,” a Middle Eastern-sounding piece that Newman again built to an intense conclusion. His flute took on a vocal quality at the beginning of “Cousin Esau,” another original that found drummer Bob Halek chopping away on his snare drum rim behind Newman. Other members of the band got to solo, with alto saxophonist Keith Pray digging in, Terry Gordon sailing over the ensemble with some biting trumpet and Brian Patneaude turning in a strong solo that had Newman nodding in admiration.
Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You” began with Newman, on tenor, and the rhythm section delivering an easy-moving boppish line before the brass section received a workout. It was the most “straight-ahead” sounding tune in the segment.
The concert began with Oliver Nelson’s “Daylie’s Double,” which featured an earthy tenor solo by Kevin Barcomb.
Benny Carter’s “The Legend” represented the Count Basie band, which Meckley described as the epitome of swing. It opened subtly with the saxophone section behind some stinging muted trumpet by Steve Lambert and built to a sturdy ensemble shout booted along by Halek.
Vocalist Colleen Pratt sang a tricky Gordon Goodwin arrangement of “Too Close for Comfort” that found her taking some nice rhythmic chances with the melody and singing some of the ensemble figures with the band.
Her voice and the band blended well again on “The Summer Wind,” and she closed her segment with a Jim Corigliano arrangement of “Cheek to Cheek,” in which the saxes seemed to sing the “heaven” part of the lyric.
Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” was a feature for Peter Bellino on flugelhorn. Pianist Cliff Brucker set the mood and Bellino gave the melody a lovely ride over an untypical Latin rhythm.
As the jammed-packed house and the band applauded David Newman at the end, Meckley gave the crowd an encore in Newman’s “Hard Times,” a gospel number that featured his soulful alto sax over some organ-like band chords and more ringing, bluesy guitar from Fragomeni.
The EJO’s fall concert is scheduled for Oct. 21 and is titled “Swing, Swing” Swing.” So what else is new?
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