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Levity accompanies vintage jazz mastery

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Trombonist Herb Bruce and his Herbicide Jazz Band closed the Charlotte County Jazz Society's 2021-22 concert season on Monday, April 11 in Punta Gorda FL with a wide-ranging trip into the world of classic jazz. It featured a stage full of all-star players, accompanied between songs by the leader's self-deprecating humor.

This was Herbicide's third visit to the CCJS concert stage. There was a bit of repetition of favorites from the 2015 and 2018 sets, but the evening was mixed with fresh material, principally from 1920s and '30s Dixieland and New Orleans repertoires. All of it was delivered well by the sextet.

No matter whether he is playing classic jazz, swing jazz or bebop, Bruce is a master of the trombone – in technique, expressiveness and the musical passion that burst from his horn.

For this evening, he was joined by trumpeter Randy Sandke, clarinetist Valerie Gillespie, pianist Judi Glover, bassist Mark Neuenschwander and drummer Eddie Metz Jr., with Bruce's wife, the fine vocalist Patricia Dean, joining for two songs each set.

The band opened with a New Orleans staple, Lil Hardin Armstrong's “Struttin' With Some Barbecue” from 1927, then moved a couple of years earlier with"Cake Walking Babies (From Home)." The original 1925 recording by composer Clarence Williams' Blue Five featured a classic solo battle between a young Louis Armstrong and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. “Storyville Blues” competed the band's opening Crescent City trilogy. A few songs later, came another: the band's take on James P. Johnson's “Louisiana."Dean joined the fun for two 1930s jazz/pop classics: “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down (And Write Myself A Letter)” and the Kansas Joe McCoy blues “Why Don't You Do Right?” Peggy Lee recorded the latter tune with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1942. This most popular of Lee's records with Goodman was the springboard for her solo career – and it was right in Dean's expressive wheelhouse. Gillespie switched to tenor sax for each of Dean's songs, adding much to the mood.

The strongest moments included the band's lengthy take on “Granada,” written in 1932 by Mexican composer Agustín Lara, with Sandke's clarion trumpet highlighting the extended, intricate arrangement that closed the first set. Bruce was in the musical spotlight after intermission on “Wabash Blues,” which was first recorded in 1921 by the Isham Jones Orchestra. His sound was growling at times, plunger muted at others.

Sandke was featured on the“Theme from Pete Kelly's Blues,” which was a natural choice. Actor Jack Webb played trumpeter/bandleader Pete Kelly in the 1955 film. The band dug deep into a hit of Fats Waller (“Yacht Club Swing”) and the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “New Orleans” before Dean returned to share two Duke Ellington songbook early classics “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me" and “Three Little Words.” The latter popular song was recorded in 1930 by The Rhythm Boys (including Bing Crosby), accompanied by the Ellington orchestra.

Then it was back to New Orleans for the last segment, with the band sharing “Basin Street Blues” and its traditional closer, “Farewell Blues” from one of Bruce's favorite Dixieland sextets. The Basin Street Six, formed in 1950 with young clarinetist Pete Fountain, as one of its founders, is the band that inspired him to form Herbicide.

Bruce lived and worked for years in Nashville, playing with Boots Randolph, the Nashville Brass and Mr. Jack Daniel's Original Silver Cornet Band. After his Nashville phase, he led the Main Street Rhythm Rascals at Walt Disney World and Rosie O'Grady's Goodtime Jazz Band in Orlando.

Herbicide also has a vibrant Nashville connection. It is home base for arranger Terry Waddell, a drummer and big band leader who wrote most of the band's charts.

The Herbicide concert drew a full house of about 275 to the Gulf Theater at the Military History Museum. Bruce's zany barbs back and forth with his band mates- and the audience- enhanced a joyous moment. CCJS completed a full concert cycle, on the heels of the pandemic-related cancellation of its final April 2020 concert and the entire 2020-21 season.

Smiles and laughter were in order.

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