The Empire Jazz Orchestra celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday night at Schenectady County Community College by taking us through a good part of the history of big band jazz.
Starting with Gordon Goodwin’s “Count Bubba,” which swung right from the start, Music Director Bill Meckley promised an evening of his favorites over the years.
This included two Duke Ellington arrangements from different eras: “Harlem Air Shaft” from the 1930s and “Such Sweet Thunder” from the 1950s. The first featured Terry Gordon on trumpet and Bret Wery on clarinet; the second had an ominous opening with muted trumpets, ringing piano chords by Cliff Brucker and a trumpet solo by Steve Lambert the evoked Ellington’s Ray Nance.
Vocalist Colleen Pratt sang an arrangement by Jim Corigliano of “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” that was precise and skillfully moved between her and the ensemble. She cracked up the band with “Are you ready boys?” before launching into “Makin’ Whoopie” at an easy, just-right tempo.
Keith Pray joined Pratt for a voice-and-sax duet on Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.” She scatted and he played while the rest of the band supplied an aural cushion.
The first half of the concert ended with two demanding pieces. The first was Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” written during the furor over school integration in Arkansas. This was represented by a chaotic brass section passage. Saxophonist Kevin Barcomb played a forceful solo over some shifting rhythms that didn’t faze him, and Terry Gordon was equally strong on trumpet.
The second challenge was Maria Schneider’s “El Viento” (“The Wind”), which Meckley described as “really hard to play.” The highlight was guitarist Mike Novakowski’s haunting, almost otherworldly solo during a muted ensemble section.
The second half of the concert opened with a piece by Jeff Hamilton titled “Max” that featured Brian Patneaude on tenor sax and some crisp drumming by Bob Halek. Patneaude managed to work “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” into his solo.
Two versions of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” showed, in Meckley’s words, “where the big band was and what it had become.” The first, by Fletcher Henderson, featured a cut-down band, a guest banjo player, and some “laughing” saxophone by Barcomb. The second was by Gil Evans and spotlighted Keith Pray. The tune was the same but the harmonies vastly different.
A medley of Frank Zappa tunes included another guitar solo by Novakowski, this one evoking some of what I can only describe as the distorted sound of the ’60s.
Colleen Pratt got the audience to “Hi-De-Ho” along on “Minnie the Moocher” and showed her range and dynamics on “The Nearness of You” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
Bill Holman’s “Malaga,” written for the Stan Kenton band, wrapped up the evening with some driving drumming by Halek and lots of blazing brass. For an encore, the band played Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.”
Meckley thanked the nearly full house and invited everyone to attend the next concert in April, which will feature trumpeter Claudio Roditi as guest soloist.