It was all about sound at Schenectady County Community College on Tuesday night as the Empire Jazz Orchestra wove its way through the intricate challenges of music by the late Clare Fischer.
Conducted by Fischer’s son Brent, the band started the second part of the concert with “One,” which seemed to be a typical big-band arrangement at first, but the saxophone section immediately came in with an individual, slightly off-center sound that set the stage for the rest of the set.
“Cal’s On,” dedicated to vibraphonist Cal Tjader, featured vibes and reeds outlining the melody together, leading to a rugged trombone solo by Rick Rosoff.
These arrangements never leave the soloist out there for very long; there were brass passages behind saxophone solos, unison clarinets and constantly shifting dynamics as Brent Fischer bobbed and weaved in front of the band.
A Grammy-nominated, bluesy tune, “In the Beginning,” moved through some tempo changes and into a fine alto sax solo by Jim Corigliano. Percussionist Mark Foster was all over the vibes on this one.
Brent Fischer’s own tune, “Step Up,” featured tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude, along with some exchanges between pianist Cliff Brucker and bassist Otto Gardner.
“Funquiado” was a Latin-flavored composition that saw trumpeter Terry Gordon tear off a brilliantly toned solo and some fiery percussion exchanges between Mark Foster and drummer Bob Halek.
The concert wound up with an arrangement of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Keith Pray played soprano sax while the rest of the reeds played clarinets. The piece came to a climax with a big, truly orchestral sound and then a quiet, sustained figure.
Way back at the beginning of the evening, the band led off with a Sammy Nestico arrangement, “Ya Gotta Try … Harder,” with a forceful tenor sax solo by Kevin Barcomb.
Vocalist Colleen Pratt sang three songs, in the first of which, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” she held her own against the sturdy trumpet figures that were part of Corigliano’s arrangement.
Music Director Bill Meckley said that if we didn’t like the next tune, “Sway,” there must be something wrong. It was a nifty Latin arrangement with a tricky ending that Pratt and the band nailed. She finished her segment with a strutting version of “Birth of the Blues.”
The first part of the concert ended with an uptempo piece by Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” that had a fast-moving saxophone line, a fiery solo by Pray and some nice trumpet work by Peter Bellino over the ensemble.
The Empire Jazz Orchestra programs are never less than ambitious. As one satisfied listener said on leaving the auditorium, “Man, I’m tired out.”