Music review: Empire Jazz Orchestra salutes big band music

The Empire Jazz Orchestra’s fall concert featured a number of masterful and varied examples of the b

“This is a masterpiece of big band writing,” said music director Bill Meckley as he introduced Benny Carter’s arrangement of “When Lights Are Low” at Schenectady County Community College on Tuesday night.

The Empire Jazz Orchestra’s fall concert featured a number of masterful and varied examples of the big band genre, and Carter’s was certainly one of the best, illustrating the classic pitting of saxophones against brass of which Carter was one of the founders. Alto saxophonist Jim Corigliano captured the sweetness of Carter’s playing in his solo.

Another veteran of the Swing Era, Mary Lou Williams, was represented by two pieces, “Lonely Moments,” which created a rather spooky ambiance with muted and then squalling trumpets. Meckley described it as a precursor of bebop. “Scorpio,” from Williams’ Zodiac Suite, has an ethereal melody that was played by clarinetist Bret Wery, who was joined by some of the other reed players on clarinets.

Meckley, who usually confines himself to conducting, brought out his trombone for an extended solo with the plunger mute (“It’s just what you think it is”) on a John Clayton piece titled “Plunger Mute Syndrome,” drawing a big hand.

Vocalist Colleen Pratt expertly sang three songs in the first set. “Just Friends” featured some bright stop-time sax figures and sparkling piano by Cliff Brucker, “Anything Goes” backed her with some perky trumpet parts, and the classic “And the Angels Sing” featured a solo by trumpeter Terry Gordon that was attributed to Harry James. This sparked a muttered debate by some who thought Ziggy Elman had been the soloist on the original record.

The first half of the concert ended with a fiery tenor sax duel between Kevin Barcomb and Brian Patneaude on “Sax Alley” that produced loud applause.

Three Oliver Nelson arrangements opened the second half. “Sidewalks of New York” began with an ensemble that evoked a bustling cityscape, complete with traffic horns. Trumpeter Steve Lambert emerged from the ensemble with an extended solo that prompted one listener to lean over and say “that guy can swing.”

Nelson’s “Yearning” was described as “as bluesy as it gets.” Saxophone figures gave Brucker a nice cushion and trumpeter Peter Bellino got an extended muted solo. “Monk’s Point” started with some querulous sax figures that really did suggest Thelonious Monk’s tart, angular writing. Bassist Otto Gardner shone through on this one.

Colleen Pratt returned to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” with some nice flute backing by Corigliano, and drummer Bob Halek emphasized the “kick” in “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

Clare Fisher’s “The Duke” was urgent and insistent, with another fine solo by Lambert, and guitarist Mike Novakowski evoked Wes Montgomery on Sam Jones’ “Unit Seven,” which closed the concert.

Meckley announced that the band’s spring concert, on April 12, would feature alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and some arrangements from the 1949 Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” album, on which Konitz appeared.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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