Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia’s ‘A String of Pearls’ at the Kimmel Center

These big-band classics stay fresh

The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia (JOP) performs only twice a year at the Kimmel Center, but bandleader-trumpeter Terell Stafford and his 17-piece orchestra cover a lot of musical ground there every time.  JOP’s three generations of players, all standard-bearers with a jazz-forward aesthetic, amply show that big-band jazz is alive and relevant. Their June 18 concert was all the more stellar with Pat Martino and his trio joining them for the concert’s second half.      

Terell Stafford pulling double duty. (Photo courtesy of Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia)

Advertised as “A String of Pearls,” the show was decidedly not a big-band sentimental journey. Stafford intimated that this concept was news to him, but joked he was more than happy to oblige. The sets included renditions of  tunes from the 1930s-40s big-band heyday, but JOP made the night so much more than pristine nostalgia.     

Many musical highlights

JOP charged out of the gate with “Big Swing Face,” a Buddy Rich hit from 1967, swinging with muscled interplays between the 13-member brass section and the already-on-fire percussive drive of drummer Steve Fidyk, pianist Josh Richman, and bassist Lee Smith.  

Introducing Hoagie Carmichael’s “Skylark,” Stafford told the about a moment of artistic clarity when, years ago, he went to the Village Vanguard on a Monday night and heard saxophonist Dick Oatts play Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of the song. The moment, Stafford said, “changed my life.” 

What a musical moment for the audience to hear Oatts reprise the performance with Stafford conducting his own orchestra. It starts with the wending piano line by Josh Richman. The orchestra comes in hovering over its famous melody; then Oatts picks it up, and his sax skylark soars through an intoxicating orchestral narrative that paints lustrous musical pictures around it. It was so entrancing that the audience didn’t applaud those solo lines; no one wanted to miss a note of this brilliant performance.

Bringing the blue thunder

Stafford cued a more straightforward reading of the Jerry Gray classic “String of Pearls recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1941. Stafford’s conjures its musical iconography, yet still makes it a tune to which you want to dance. 

Mike Cemprola, Chris Farr, Tim Warfield and Mark Allen brought the blue note thunder of “Four Brothers,” made famous by the Woody Herman band, which included sax titans Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. Also transporting was JOP’s version of the Count Basie Band’s live recording of the buoyant standard “April in Paris, with its famous finale’s tagline, “One more time.” 

The first set concluded with Juan Tizol’s “Perdido, an Ellington band barn burner that, in its day, got everybody on the dance floor.  It may be draped in Ellington lushness, but JOP swings it more like the Basie Band would have done. Lest anyone think Stafford was taking a trumpet night off, he weighed in on “Perdido,” his fingering splitting atoms and his stratospheric golden range dropping to a scorching growl when you least expected it.

Classy and cool

The second set was even more musically captivating, with Pat Martino, Philadelphia’s guitar legend, in a vintage summer jacket over jeans, classy and eternally cool. Musically, he is as brilliant as ever; and as Stafford noted, he’s a soloist who instructs other musicians just by playing.

JOP played an indelible version of Duke Ellington’s “Sound of Love,” composed by Charles Mingus in homage to Ellington’s signature sound. The orchestra orbited Martino’s thrilling phrasing as the tune finished with fragments of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Martino composed two of the up-tempo numbers that followed: “Draw Me Down,” with its shimmering calypso backbeat, and “Inside Out, which started sounding a bit like Neil Hefti’s “The Odd Couple” theme song, then bloomed into a rollicking jazz sinfonia. 

Is it possible to hear a jazz concert these days without the a trumpeter quoting Dizzy Gillespie's jazz hook from "Birks Works"? Stafford slipped it in on the Martino composition "The Lean Years," a 1950s sounding jazznoir. Have to admit that, this time, it fit right in.   

Our readers respond

Bruce Klauber

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on June 27, 2016

Nicely done.

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