The Empire Jazz Orchestra is nothing if not ambitious. The resident big band at Schenectady County Community College tackled two formidable pieces in its Tuesday night concert: Oliver Nelson’s “Sound Piece for Jazz Orchestra” and Bill Reddie’s “Channel One Suite,” one of the extended showcases for the Buddy Rich band.
The Nelson composition’s three sections began with tom-toms and shakers laying down an insinuating rhythm underneath what sounded like a Western motif; the second part opened with a stately trombone theme followed by massed clarinets adding color. It included a warm flugelhorn solo by Pete Bellino, who switched to trumpet in the bright third section, in which a repeated ensemble figure led to a brilliant ending.
The concert opened with a swinging Sammy Nestico arrangement of “Strike Up the Band,” which featured the big-toned tenor sax of Kevin Barcomb and nicely set the stage for one of Music Director Bill Meckley’s typically wide-ranging evenings.
Mary Lou Williams’ “Roll ’Em” was familiar to Benny Goodman fans, and the ensemble captured the push-pull rhythms of the boogie-woogie era, setting up pianist Cliff Brucker’s bluesy solo, clarinetist Bret Wery and the fiery trumpet of Terry Gordon.
Vocalist Colleen Pratt was in excellent form, scatting along with Barcomb on “Day by Day” and soaring through the “brothers and sisters” verse to “Accentuate the Positive” in a Billy May arrangement complete with his famous slurring saxophone sound.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” got a lush treatment and a fine solo by alto saxophonist Keith Pray, whose rich sound evoked Ellington’s great alto player, Johnny Hodges.
A couple of Slide Hampton arrangements opened the second half of the concert: “Slide’s Derangement” summoned up the big bands of the 1950s, and featured Brian Patneaude on tenor sax, who was as forceful in his own way as Barcomb. Meckley described “Go East, Young Man” as “kind of silly,” but it was anything but, with some forceful drumming by Bob Halek and a rousing trombone solo by Rick Rosoff.
Pratt returned for two tunes, the second of which was “My Romance” in a gorgeous arrangement by band member Jim Corigliano, with clarinets and flugelhorns setting the stage. The balance between her voice and the ensemble was perfect; she became part of the band while clearly leading the way.
“Channel One Suite” featured Halek, and it was one of his best drumming performances. He opened with some around-the-set figures and played the shifting rhythms expertly. The ballad-like middle section featured Patneaude, who wrapped it up with a virtuoso cadenza, leading the way into Halek’s drum solo, which was as impressive as anything I have heard him play over several years.
The band’s spring concert is set for April 17, and will feature the music of pianist and composr Clare Fischer.
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