A veteran of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, Clark Terry delivered five decades of musicianship and a timeless sense of humor to Seattle, entertaining a packed house of 500-plus fans who filled Beneroya Recital Hall. High notes mirrored sightgags as the venerable flugelhornist played and hammed his way through two sets of swingin' big band arrangements performed by the 17-piece Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.
Compositions by Quincy Jones ("Happy Faces"), Billy Strayhorn ("Isfahan"), Ernie Wilkins ("Jenny," "Big Bad Blues") and Terry himself ("Sheba," "Tee Pee Time," "Mumbles") set a high musical standard for the evening. Blues, swing and red hot solos were in large supply thanks to SRJO's fine stable of local musicians - including trumpets Jay Thomas and Floyd Standifer, tenor saxophonist Don Lanphere and pianist Marc Seales. As a whole the orchestra, lead by altoist Michael Brockman, displayed great dynamic range and clarity of tone, texturing luscious big band chords with delicacy and power. The rhythm section swung steady in the capable hands of Seales, bassist Phil Sparks and 22-year-old drummer Jay Ledley, an admirable last minute replacement for SRJO's Artistic Director Clarence Acox.
But the star of the show was Clark Terry. Impeccably dressed and sporting a huge smile, Terry charmed his Seattle audience, most of who were in attendance to pay tribute to this living jazz legend. Yet, Terry eschewed his illustrious title in favor of something more universal: humor. His nonsense tune "Mumbles" was again a hit. Debuted on The Tonight Show, Terry's gibberish scat singing-a mixture of Swedish Chef and Baptist Minister-left the crowd in hysterics. Other Terry hijinks included pretending to pour water in his ear, playing his horn upside down and even playing two horns at once. Jazz purists must have scoffed, but the majority in attendance found Terry's mixture of music and mirth highly entertaining.
Musically speaking, Terry's solos were neither stellar nor subpar, and it's clear that at the age of 79 the East St. Louis native has lost a good deal of the musical ability on which his reputation rests. But, shades of greatness were evident on the flugelhornist's rendition of "Sheba" a beautiful ballad written for, not a voluptuous woman but the composer's French poodle, "who bit me." Here Terry's horn equaled the majesty of yesteryear with its richness of tone and intimacy of feeling.
The evening's concert was not without its bizarre moments, however. Why was the upbeat and jovial "Tee Pee Time" dedicated to the Native Americans who died at the battle of Wounded Knee? And what was the meaning behind Terry's 15-second solo encore performed impromptu at the stage door? Value every note, perhaps.
Perhaps most puzzling of all is how an audience of 500 can sit stone still while listening to burning swing, infectious blues, spontaneous solos and the combined energy of 17 top-flight jazz musicians. From the back of the hall, this reviewer noticed only a few heads bobbing, only a few hands clapping in rhythm. It must have been the sight of all those tuxedos up on stage that stifled everybody's natural inclination to bust a move. Of course, as Clark Terry well knows, there's nothing like humor to break the ice.
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