A two-note trumpet figure signals the beginning of Duke Ellington’s “A Tone Parallel to Harlem,” which the Empire Jazz Orchestra performed Tuesday night at Schenectady County Community College.
One of Ellington’s extended works, the piece is full of shifting rhythms and a range of dynamics that the composer intended to convey the varied lifestyles and activities of Harlem.
It begins with an ensemble elaboration on those two notes, moves into a brief swinging section with muted trumpets and drops into a quiet mood set by solo clarinet.
Later, a trombone sounds a folklike melody that the entire ensemble picks up and carries into the fiery finale led by pounding drums and the brass section in full cry.
The piece wrapped up the first half of the concert, which opened with a swinging piece titled “Minor Booze,” introduced by just bass and drums, that featured solos by alto saxophonist Keith Pray and a bright, brassy trumpet solo by Steve Lambert.
Joe Henderson’s “Isotope” followed, with tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude soloing over some fiery brass figures and pianist Cliff Brucker turning in a couple of bluesy choruses.
Everyone left the stage except the four trombonists, who blended nicely in an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” anchored by the bass trombone of Dan Cordell.
Vocalist Colleen Pratt sang an arrangement of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” written for Anita O’Day, with some hip lyrics that were not in the original. She handled them with ease, and followed that with an arrangement by band member Jim Corigliano of “Give Me the Simple Life.”
The second half of the concert opened with Bill Holman’s “Bright Eyes,” and Colleen Pratt returned to sing a fast-tempoed Nelson Riddle arrangement of “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Pratt, who takes a back seat to no brass section, held the final note over the closing chord. Another vocal arrangement by Riddle, on “Blue Moon,” featured muted trumpets and a tenor sax solo by Kevin Barcomb.
Corigliano contributed a new composition and arrangement titled “Tailwind,” which gave guitarist Mike Novakowski a chance to solo. Drummer Bob Halek, who played expertly all night, drove this arrangement to a brisk conclusion.
Novakowski was featured on a Billy Taylor piece titled “Theodora” in which Corigliano’s flute, the trombone section and the trumpeters playing flugelhorns provided a lush cushion of sound.
The finale, a loping “Joe’s Blues,” featured several solos, including some rumbling piano by Brucker and rugged trombone by Ben O’Shea.
As an encore, the band played a Benny Carter tune written for the Count Basie band titled “Blue Five Jive.” Music director Bill Meckley invited the audience to dance, and while there were no takers, there was plenty of head nodding and finger snapping.
Meckley announced that the band’s spring concert would feature bassist Dave Holland as guest artist.