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Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia Tribute to Strayhorn and Golson at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia
Spring Concert Honoring Billy Strayhorn and Benny Golson
Perelman Theater
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, PA
May 9, 2015

This concert was billed as "A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn," but it was, in fact, evenly divided between Strayhorn's music and that of the venerable Philadephia native, Benny Golson, who brought himself and his iconic jazz standard tunes to the new and highly touted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia and a full house of enthusiastic listeners. The evening gave everyone a chance for a comparison of the Ellington/Strayhorn legacy and the hard bop tradition that largely began in Philadelphia with Golson and his compeers, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, the Heath brothers, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Philly Joe Jones, and a host of other locals. Golson was in the middle of that firmament, and you could hear that energy in the big band arrangements of his easily recognizable classic tunes. WRTI's revered DJ Bob Perkins' observations as emcee also contributed to the sense of an ongoing legacy.

Strayhorn and the Ellington Charts

Billy Strayhorn was of course Duke Ellington's "alter ego," writing many of the tunes and arrangements that were featured by Ellington's bands for nearly thirty years. The familiar opening number, "Take the A Train" aroused immediate audience recognition and brought the Ellington sound into the room in high definition. Jon Shaw swung and enlivened the requisite trumpet solo with a Harry James flair as opposed to the super-cool way of Ellington's brass section. This set the tone for the entire set, which echoed the Ellington sound but with a larger, brighter emphasis. "Such Sweet Thunder" featured a well-articulated solo by trumpeter Mike Natale. One sign of a great big band is that you can't wait until the next solo, and that's how it went on this night. In a rip-roaring version of "UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)" (can you hear the rhythm in that phrase?), Earl Phillips' arrangement added a level of modern complexity, and the fabulous solo came from Stafford himself.

Then, in an arrangement that was a virtual reincarnation of the Ellington band of the 1940s, "All Heart" featured solos by pianist Josh Richman and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield. Stafford dedicated that song to the late trumpeter and Ellington alumnus Clark Terry, who nurtured and encouraged Stafford, Miles Davis, and just about every other trumpet player who passed his way. A surprising musical revelation came with a lesser known Strayhorn tune, "Happy Go Lucky Local" in which the popular song "Night Train" startlingly appears in parenthesis. A jazz historian might be able to tell us whether it was in the original version, or whether Ellington inserted it later -most likely it was the latter. Next, the dramatically orchestrated version of "Eighth Veil" brought elements of film noir suspense into the mix, and Nick Marchione's trumpet solo updated historical performances by Cat Anderson and Lew Soloff. Then came the gorgeous ballad, "Star Crossed Lovers," that only Strayhorn could have written, just as no one else could have composed "Lush Life." Dick Oatts' alto solo in the style of the great Johnny Hodges captured the aesthetic of art deco blue that characterizes this piece. To round off the set with further excitement, Stafford did killer solos on his own composition (arranged by Adam Pfannenstiel), "Twists and Turns."

The power and beauty of this performance left no doubt, if any remains, that Strayhorn was one of the great American composers. And the musicians in the Ellington bands -as well as the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia -deserve credit for capturing this distinguished composer's intent.

Golson: A Modern Jazz Icon

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