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Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia: “Comin’ Home” Concert at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, PA
January 7, 2014

Fresh out of the starting gate, the highly touted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia (JOP), Terell Stafford, Artistic Director, held its first gala concert at a major venue, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The 17-piece orchestra features both seasoned and up-and-coming Philadelphia musicians with the intent of conveying music composed, arranged, and performed in the exceptional jazz tradition of this city. The JOP is an ambitious venture co-founded by trumpeter-educator Stafford and Deena Adler, a psychologist and jazz advocate who notably represents the great saxophonist Odean Pope.

At this major kick-off event, comedian Bill Cosby, a longtime friend and supporter of jazz and the musicians, provided introductory remarks, injecting his hilarious clowning with obvious affection and a nod of approval for the inception of a stellar jazz orchestra in his home city. Iconic Philadelphia-rooted jazz performers Kenny Barron, Randy Brecker, and Jimmy Heath, along with the great Wynton Marsalis, each performed with the orchestra, as did local saxophonists Bootsie Barnes, Larry McKenna, and Tony Williams. Stafford emceed, conducted, and did solo turns on trumpet. The full roster of the orchestra is provided below.

The orchestra delivered what it promised—and more—to a full house of enthusiastic fans who came out in zero degree weather, many still bundled up in their seats, a rare sight at the Kimmel Center. They were to hear superb arrangements with a Philly accentuation encompassing a broad swath of moods and styles. The band members are among the best musicians who frequently perform locally, and often internationally. Stafford selected the personnel to promote interaction and mentorship among the more seasoned players with their younger peers. The music was superb throughout as the energy level built up to a fever pitch with no intermission to interrupt the momentum.

The evening began with "Passion Dance," a composition by McCoy Tyner, arranged by Denis Mackrel, drummer and composer/arranger for the Count Basie Band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Tyner, who would have been present but for a gig in Germany, grew up in Philadelphia with John Coltrane. JOP pianist, young Josh Richman captured Tyner's approach remarkably well, and venerable alto saxophonist Dick Oatts offered a stunning soprano saxophone solo in homage to Coltrane. The arrangement built to high intensity appropriate to a "passion dance" and got the show off to a strong start.

Benny Golson came of age in Philadelphia with Tyner and Trane. His standard, "Along Came Betty" provided a superb foil for solos by tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield and trombonist Joe McDonough, whose extended improvising amounted to a complex suite of carefully crafted themes and variations.

Trane's ballad, "Central Park West," was arranged for big band by trombonist and band leader John Fedchock with his usual dense sonorities and aftershocks. Chris Farr, who is turning into one of the truly great saxophonists of his generation, rendered a haunting, romanticized solo that Trane would have appreciated. One of the notable traits of the JOP ensemble is that each and every player has a full, rich tone that would inspire envy in symphonic players, with bassist Lee Smith heading the procession. Arguably, his amazing and often noted sound equals or exceeds the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra's bass violin section.

The standard, "Candy," is associated with the great Philadelphia trumpeter Lee Morgan. The arrangement here was by reed player Norman David, also from Philly, and one of the most innovative arrangers in the business. Several of the JOP personnel—for example Mark Allen, Randy Kapralick, and Dick Oatts—are regulars in David's eleventet, which contributes to the similarities between the JOP sound and that of David's organization. Stafford, who not too long ago did a full concert dedicated to Morgan, offered a "whopping" solo that caught some of Morgan's own fervor.

Shirley Scott, the great organist in a town from which many—such as Jimmy Smith and Trudy Pitts—have hailed, was a beloved mentor and friend of Stafford and Warfield, who today maintain an almost brotherly relationship. Scott wrote a piece for the Basie band called "Basie in Mind," which was arranged by the Count's own Frank Foster. Typical of the Basie band, the energy was sustained and intense, culminating in an inimitable tenor saxophone cadenza by Warfield, himself by now a master who has learned from all the greats but never imitates them.

Odean Pope, the legendary and perennially great saxophonist who grew up with Trane in North Philadelphia, was in the audience and took a bow. The orchestra performed his composition and arrangement, "To the Roach," a hard bop challenger dedicated to drummer Max Roach, in whose group Pope famously did a stint and several iconic recordings. Drummer Chris Beck quoted some of Roach's own playing, using the diverse drum and cymbal sounds as a kind of scalar vocabulary (as opposed to purely percussive effect.) Alto saxophonist Mike Cemprola and trombonist Randy Kapralick, two of the finest musicians Philadelphia has to offer, measured up to the demands of this composition in their respective solos, as did guitarist Greg Kettinger, who at times performed double duty as straight man for the pranks of both Cosby and Stafford. (He deserves extra pay for this service.)

The great Kenny Barron came out and did piano chores for John Clayton's arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Evidence." Barron has devoted a considerable portion of his repertoire to Monk's compositions, executing Monk's slanted phrasings with his own incomparable touch and technique. The only way to describe the effect of Barron's playing on the listener—and presumably his co-musicians—is "pleasure." Trumpet solos by Tony DeSantis and Mike Natale added spice and seasoning to Barron's superb interpretations of Monk.

Trumpeter Randy Brecker came of age in the Philly suburbs with his brother, the late great saxophonist Michael Brecker. Trumpeter Brecker is a masterful player who recently released an album, Night in Calisia (Summit, 2013), with a full symphony orchestra, so it was no problem for him to adapt to the JOP. On a Vincent Mendoza arrangement of Brecker's own composition, "Free Fall," he manifested his usual improvisational capabilities, challenged only by those of Stafford himself and the remarkable young baritone saxophonist, Mark Allen.

"The man of the hour" at this concert was Wynton Marsalis. Stafford and Marsalis have a special connection, and this was probably the reason that the latter, who has no shortage of commitments, came out for this concert. As one of the prime carriers of the Ellington tradition, it was natural for him to do the Duke's "Tuttie for Cootie." Ellington's trumpet player, Cootie Williams, is one of Marsalis' great inspirations, and the latter made ample use of the plunger mute to transform the music into a frenetic Ellingtonian monologue that built up to an almost trance-inducing state of mind.

Tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna, a Philadelphia native and alumnus of the Woody Herman band, whose playing this writer recently compared to the thrill of driving a Maserati, has a cache of big band arrangements which Stafford tapped for the JOP. McKenna's arrangement of "Perdido" equaled the perfection of his tenor playing, and in this case, he did solo turns with two other Philly saxophone legends, Bootsie Barnes and Tony Williams, with whom he traded eights and fours.

As if there weren't enough geniuses on the stage, the great Jimmy Heath strutted on stage with his perennial smile and with his autobiography I Walked with Giants (Temple University Press, 2010) having garnered rave reviews. The Heath Brothers of course are Jimmy, Tuttie (drummer), and Percy (bassist). They grew up in South Philadelphia, and their home was the scene of jam sessions that contributed to the development of the hard bop idiom. Jimmy Heath is also one of the great composers and arrangers. In this concert, he performed two of his own compositions: "Voice of the Saxophone" and "Ginger Bread Boy." Heath is a nimble 88 years old, and it is remarkable how strong he sounds, especially considering that some of his peers died at half his age from heroin overdoses and other tragic circumstances.

It is a powerful commentary about how far jazz players have come to note how clean-cut and simply healthy the members of the JOP ensemble appear. Sixty years ago, many of their equivalents might have been hooked on drugs or alcohol or doing prison time for their drug busts. In the current crop of jazz musicians, such situations are relatively rare. It is by such "amazing grace" that an ensemble such as JOP can arise and have great hopes for the future. Their predecessors paid their karmic dues for them, and thankfully, nowadays, our treasured musicians don't have to go through such nightmarish horrors as were endured by Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis, to name but a few.

One of the curious omissions of the concert was the lack of a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and his earth-shattering legacy. Gillespie lived in Philadelphia for much of his youth, and later remained close with many of the jazz players from the area.

This joyful and stunning concert proved the mettle of the new JOP ensemble that promises to be a towering representative of the Philadelphia jazz tradition. It can be predicted that, with community support, it will thrive as a performing group, afford great opportunities for younger players, and provide a staging area for composing, arranging, rehearsing, performing, and thinking about the evolving music. The one question—which no one can answer yet—is whether it will evolve its own idiom, putting its unique stamp on big band performance. Each of the great big bands—from Fletcher Henderson to Duke Ellington to Count Basie to Stan Kenton to Woody Herman to Gil Evans to the Vanguard Monday Night Orchestra to Maria Schneider (and of course many more could be added to this list)—has made its indelible mark by an almost instantly recognizable style and approach. It will take time to see if some day the folks are "Jumping at the Kimmel" to tunes associated with the "Jazz Orchestra of Philly sound." In the meantime, we are going to hear some great performances by some of the finest players to come out of the Philadelphia jazz scene. Stafford hopes that the JOP will perform both locally and on the road.

Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia Members: Dick Oatts, lead alto saxophone; Mike Cemprola, alto saxophone; Chris Farr, tenor saxophone; Tim Warfield, tenor saxophone; Mark Allen, baritone saxophone; Randy Kapralick, Jared Antinucci, Joe McDonough, Barry McCommon, trombones; Nick Marchione, Dennis Wasco, Tony DeSantis, Mike Natale, trumpets; Greg Kettinger, guitar; Lee Smith, bass; Josh Richman, piano; Chris Beck, drums. Philadelphia (JOP), Terell Stafford,
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