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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

Following the intermission, Stafford introduced the legendary Philadelphia born and bred saxophonist and one of the innovators of hard bop, Benny Golson, for a set of his music arranged for big band. His gentle demeanor and his choosing to sit with the rhythm section gave the audience's attention to the band, but he hilariously drew all the attention back to himself with long stories, promoting himself tongue-in-cheek as a ranconteur. Far from lighthearted, however, he told first-person tales of pivotal moments in the history of jazz, such as Miles Davis' recruitment of John Coltrane and Clifford Brown's tragic death. Golson provided humorous compensation for these serious moments with allusions to his wife's displeasure with his playing the same phrase on the piano all day long, and the story of Dizzy Gillespie distractingly oiling his trumpet valves while the novice Golson was trying to interest him in recording "I Remember Clifford." (Gillespie, as well as Lee Morgan, did record it, and it has become an all-time favorite jazz standard.)

From the downbeat of "Killer Joe," the band revved up a notch, as did all of jazz during the transition from swing to bebop and hard bop. Most of today's jazz musicians are reared within a bop and post-bop culture, and these guys came alive with that rhythmic shift and harmonic complexity that Golson and his contemporaries brought about. Both the arrangements and the musicians' affinities had the effect of entering a time machine and moving ahead a couple of decades. The energy continued with the driving rhythm of "Stablemates." Mark Allen delivered a great baritone saxophone solo, and alto saxophonist Dick Oatts, Randy Kapralick on trombone, and pianist Josh Richman also gave extra resonance to this piece. But the amazing Mark Allen is a hard act to follow. Definitely "someone to watch," he improvises in a most ingenious, brilliant, and carefully constructed way on an instrument (baritone sax) that is big, unwieldy, and hard to blow.

A gentle touch was added to the mix with "Along came Betty," a staple of Golson's tenure with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Then, while the memorable ballad "I Remember Clifford" was rendered with less sentimentality than it deserved, it was given some depth in solos by Allen, alto saxophonist Chris Oatts (Dick Oatts' son), tenor saxophonist, Chris Farr, and bassist Lee Smith.

The concert concluded with another staple of Golson's tenure with the Jazz Messengers: "Blues March." As the audience rose to give a standing ovation, one could only think, Mr. Golson and Mr. Stafford: thank you for everything you've done for the jazz legacy and for providing an exciting and nostalgic evening of music.

The Future of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

In its short tenure of a little over a year and with only a few—but exciting and promising -performances to its credit, it's safe to say that the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia is here to stay. They have great leadership, a vision, a university and city connection, a legion of supporters, and an enthusiastic audience. As Stafford pointed out in his appeal for donations, they need to raise sufficient funding to realize their dreams, but there is corporate and individual wealth in Philadelphia that has sponsored numerous worthy music projects. "Build it, and (they) will come."

However, the question that may haunt this exceptional band is the nature of the music that it intends to purvey. This is, by stated purpose, a "legacy" rather than an innovative unit, whose goal is to bring Philly Jazz to the attention of the city and the world. So far, the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia has presented work that, while being of lasting interest, was mainstream five decades ago, featuring guest musicians who represent that time period. But the players in this band, like many of their contemporaries, have gone well beyond that. They need music that will stretch their limits, and so do the audiences. Philadelphia and the surrounding area have more than their share of innovative composer/arrangers, and their resources need to be tapped in order to bring a cutting edge to the group. There is no reason why this band, like a good fishing fleet, can't stick close to the harbor while venturing into the open seas when the catch is greater there. Only then can the group develop its unique style and contribution to jazz. The "Philly Sound" isn't enough.

Songs: Set I (all composed by Strayhorn; arr. by Ellington/Strayhorn, except where noted) A Train; Such Sweet Thunder; UMMG (arr Earl Phillips); All Heart; Happy-Go-Lucky Local; Eighth Veil; Star Crossed Lovers; Twist & Turns (comp: Stafford, arr: Adam Pfannenstiel. Set II: (all composed by Golson: Killer Joe; Stablemates; Along Came Betty; I Remember Clifford; Blues March.

Personnel: Terrell Stafford: Artistic Director and trumpet; Dick Oatts, Chris Oatts: alto saxophone; Chris Farr, Tim Warfield: tenor saxophone; Mark Allen: baritone saxophone; Nick Marchione, Jon Shaw, Tony DeSantis, Mike Natale: trumpet; Randy Kaprailck, Jarred Antonacci, Joe McDonough, Barry McCommon: trombone; Josh Richman: piano; Greg Kettinger: guitar; Lee Smith: bass; Steve Fidyk: drums.
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