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The Diva Jazz Orchestra and Johnny Mandel at Dizzy's Club, NYC

Dan Bilawsky By

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Diva Jazz Orchestra
Dizzy's Club Coca Cola
New York, New York
May 26, 2010

While The Diva Jazz Orchestra often gets press that relates to their status as an all-female big band, gender is irrelevant when discussing their musical acumen. Drummer Sherrie Maricle and company have proven themselves time and time again— with ample demonstrations of taste, talent and chops to spare—on recordings and in live settings. This particular set was part of a three-night residency celebrating the music of Johnny Mandel. The man himself—who happened to be the only man on the bandstand—was present to conduct, provide keen insight into the origins of his songs and inject some humor into the evening.
The show kicked off with an energetic swing vehicle—"Low Life"—originally written for Count Basie. Guitarist Dida Pelled contributed an instantly appealing guitar solo built on single note lines, and tenor saxophonists Janelle Reichman and Leigh Pilzer traded solos back and forth before the screaming trumpets came roaring in to bring this one home. "Close Enough For Love" served as a clarinet feature for Reichman. The light warmth of the woodwinds—with clarinet, flute and bass clarinet supplanting saxophones—helped to amplify the sensitivity of the composition. "Not Really The Blues"—written for Woody Herman—featured some shouting riffs and, once again, gave Reichman and a few other soloists some space.
While the start of the set might have led one to believe that Janelle Reichman was the only game in town in the reed section, the rest of the set showed otherwise. Mandel's new arrangement of his "Cinnamon And Clove"—often assumed to be a Sergio Mendes song—featured a stunning display of virtuosity and vigor from Sharel Cassity on alto saxophone. Lisa Parrott, holding together the low end of the woodwinds, was featured on baritone saxophone on the "Theme From I Want To Live." Parrott, taking on a musical role originally played by Gerry Mulligan, was superb in balancing a sultry, blues-imbued spirit and noir-ish, smoky vibe, with muted brass backgrounds adding to the allure.
In addition to their own recordings, the Diva Jazz Orchestra has collaborated with other artists in the past, and one such individual—vocalist extraordinaire Ann Hampton Callaway—made a mid-set guest appearance. In tribute to Billie Holiday, Callaway sang "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," and the song went from casual to explosive. "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do," arranged by Mandel, kicked off with a screaming introduction, and Callaway had fun filling in the stop-time breaks from the band. Callaway gave the band a little break between those two songs when she sat down at the piano to play and sing the emotion-filled "Where Do You Start," the versatile performer proving to be a master mood-setter while delivering Alan and Marilyn Bergman's lyrics.

Maricle is often a fiery force at the helm of this impressive outfit, but her drumming on much of this material was more restrained than usual—likely deference to Mandel's sensitive scoring—and she selflessly directed the band through vastly different musical settings. In addition to the vocal numbers and in-your-face swing tunes, some of Mandel's best-known songs also made an appearance on the bill. Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis played flugelhorn, moving to the front of the band as featured soloist on "The Shadow Of Your Smile." After Pelled played the familiar first notes to the "Theme From M*A*S*H*"—and the establishment of the familiar melody—the song shifted to a slow Latin feel, with pianist Tomoko Ohno digging in and soloing with great expression. The combination of different mutes throughout the brass section, and Lynn Gruenewald's piccolo cresting atop the mix, added some enjoyable textural variety to the music.

Despite some problems with the air-conditioning in the club, the mood remained festive during the lengthy set. The impact of the music seemed to become stronger as the night wore on, and by the time the band arrived at the closer—"Can't Take You Nowhere" (a.k.a. "TNT")—the room was bursting with energy, most of the players by now fully engaged and solos being passed around like candy. Maricle, Mandel and the marvelously talented women of the Diva Jazz Orchestra make for a pleasing yet potent and arresting musical combination.

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