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The Empire Jazz Orchestra: Anniversary

Jack Bowers By

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Any time a big band in this country marks its tenth anniversary (or even its first), it’s a cause for celebration — which is exactly what the Empire Jazz Orchestra did last October, taping much of the music on its third album during a gala decade concert at its home base, Schenectady (NY) Community College.

As is its custom, the EJO spans eras and canvasses styles from swing to bop, standard to contemporary with historic charts by Don Redman, Dizzy Gillespie / Gil Fuller, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and Bill Holman reinforcing cutting-edge works by Frank Zappa, Daniel Barry, Ed Palermo and Maria Schneider. While the listener will have to decide for him / herself if that’s a good idea, there’s seldom a dull moment as the EJO repeatedly switches gears and moves from one genre to another.

Must keep the audience alert and on its toes too, as there’s no way to anticipate what the orchestra may do next, with Redman’s “Chant of the Weed” followed by Daniel Barry’s “Baby Weezer,” Mingus’ salute to Lester Young, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” by Schneider’s “Gumba Blue” and a trio of Zappa’s quirky brainchildren, “Toads of the Short Forest” and “Who Are the Brain Police? / Holiday in Berlin,” smartly arranged by Palermo.

The EJO chooses one number from the American Songbook, and it’s a beaut, Johnny Burke / Jimmy Van Heusen’s rhapsodic “Like Someone in Love,” charmingly scored by the EJO’s Jim Corigliano. That precedes the album’s lone vocal, by Colleen Pratt on Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and the crowd-pleasing finale, Holman’s bold and breathtaking “Malaga.”

The opener, Dizzy’s mercurial “Things to Come,” would challenge even the most seasoned orchestra. The EJO handles it well, in spite of uneven sound which erases any doubt that this is a concert recording. Redman’s four-square “Chant of the Weed” carries the band back to the swing era before Barry’s elaborate “Baby Weezer” dictates a more contemporary course. Corigliano (alto sax, clarinet) is showcased on “Weed,” pianist Cliff Brucker on Strayhorn’s smooth “Cashmere Cutie,” tenor Kevin Barcomb on “Porkpie Hat,” guitarist Tony Sano on “Brain Police / Berlin.” Barcomb and Corigliano interpose absorbing comments on Evans’ arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s picturesque “Arab Dance,” as do Sano and soprano Keith Pray on “Weezer,” Brucker and tenor Brian Patneaude on “Gumba Blue,” Barcomb and keyboardist Nicholas Lue on “Toads,” Barcomb, Brucker and flugel David Friedman on “Someone in Love,” Patneaude, trombonist Chris Barron and trumpeter Tony Speranza on “Malaga.”

Another splendid performance by the adventurous EJO, which seems at home in any musical domain. Sound is problematic but the orchestra rises above it to produce a pleasurable hour of wide-ranging big-band jazz.

Contact: [email protected] Schenectady Community College, 78 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305 (phone 518–381–1232; e–mail [email protected]; web site,

Track Listing: Things to Come; Chant of the Weed; Baby Weezer; Cashmere Cutie; Arab Dance; Goodbye Porkpie Hat; Gumba Blue; Toads of the Short Forest; Who Are the Brain Police? / Holiday in Berlin; Like Someone in Love; I

Personnel: William Meckley, music director, conductor; Jim Corigliano, alto, soprano sax, clarinet, flute, piccolo; Lee Russo, alto sax, clarinet, flute; Leo Russo (12), alto sax; Keith Pray (3, 8, 9, 12), alto, soprano sax; Kevin Barcomb, tenor sax, clarinet, flute; Brian Patneaude, tenor, baritone sax, clarinet, flute; Brett Wery, baritone, tenor sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute; Pete Shaulinski (8, 9), baritone sax; Jon Bronk, Scott Thompson, Jeff Calistri, David Friedman, Terry Gordon, trumpet, flugelhorn; Tony Speranza (8, 9, 12), Vito Speranza (8, 9, 12), trumpet; Gary Barrow, Amy Giammattei, Chris Barron, Ken DeRagon, trombone; Ken Olsen (3, 8, 9), trombone; Dan Cordell, bass trombone; Cliff Brucker, piano; Nicholas Lue (3, 8, 9), piano, keyboard; Tony Sano, guitar, banjo; Otto Gardner, bass; Bob Halek, drums; Colleen Pratt, vocals.

Title: Anniversary | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: EJO


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