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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.

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