Friday, April 15, 2011

That Three-Week Gig Has Worked Out Pretty Well So Far

ST. LOUIS--By now, the story of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra--née Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, née the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra--is fairly well known by now: At the request of Jones and Lewis, Max Gordon allowed a big band to booked for three Monday nights in February, 1966 at his legendary Village Vanguard in New York City at the request of Jones and Lewis, who had each come off the road with Basie and Kenton, respectively.

And forty-five years later, the band is still going strong, having survived the passing of both Jones and Lewis (as well as Gordon) and performing under a name that now reflects its home base instead of its leadership. Many of the band's veteran players have a history with the group dating back to Thad's day, so tightness and swing still rule the day. And even with a few subs on board tonight (at least if one compares tonight's lineup to the personnel listed on the band's website), the band played in such a unified fashion, it was as if everyone on stage had been together for the entire 45 years of the band's existence.

And a lot of the core band was there tonight: Four-fifths of the saxophone section (Dick Oatts and Billy Drewes on altos/sopranos, and Rich Perry and Ralph Lalama on tenors) was in attendance, as were trombonist/spokesman John Mosca and bass trombonist/producer Doug Purviance. Lead trumpeter Nick Marchione and jazz trunpeter Scott Wendholdt were on board tonight, as was new bassist David Wong (as we pause to remember the late Dennis Irwin). And the subs--most notably pianist Michael Weiss, drummer Andy Watson and the bari player, whose name was Mark something (help me here!)--did an outstanding job of filling in for their missing counterparts.

As imagined, the evening featured a healthy portion of charts both famous and obscure by co-founder Thad Jones, including "Central Park North," "Kids Are Pretty People,' "Groove Merchant" and the encore "Mean What You Say." Other highlights included the music of pianist/composer-in-residence Jim McNeely, represented here by his arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Up from the Skies," along with a brand-new suite of three movements, each featuring one of the band's premier soloists--Oatts, Wendholt and Perry (in fact, the movements were simply entitled "Oatts," "Scott" and "Rich," respectively).

Needless to say, the band blew the roof off the place. The 40-year-old charts sounded as fresh as ever, and the new music stood ready to take its place among the classics. Very few times can a big band where virtually everyone is a world-class soloist (many of them leaders in their own right) be found outside of New York City, and it's great to see this band hit the road every now and then.

Another treat this evening was a brief but memorable appearance by Clark Terry. The legendary trumpeter/flugelhornist/vocalist/sweetheart of a guy was our guest artist at the college in '98, back when he was "only" 77 years old. Now, at age 90, he's very frail and can no longer play (thanks to a heart attack a few years ago), but he came onstage to sing an old favorite, "Just Squeeze Me," with the UMSL band's rhythm section, and he closed out his portion with his famous "Mumbles" routine (in case you're curious, the last intelligible part of the song this time around was a shout-out to his hometown St. Louis Cardinals). Clark is one of our national treasures, and I'm glad that I had the chance to see him again.

The festival is off to a great start! Tomorrow, it's the Ron Carter Trio; I'll blog that as well.

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