July 2, 2009 performance reviewed by by Ronald K. Baker.
A brief interlude between the persistent showers that have dogged the Berkshires for the last month provided an opportunity for an ample cadre of concertgoers to file into the Methodist church on Fenn Street in Pittsfield Thursday night for a concert by the American Jazz Repertory Orchestra and Berkshires Jazz All-Stars, presented by BerkshiresJazz, Inc..
A nearly packed house greeted moderator Ed Bride as he delivered his opening remarks. He used the occasion not only to herald the evening’s “breakout” appearance of the American Jazz Repertory Orchestra, but also to plug upcoming jazz events, like the annual Pittsfield CityJazz Festival in the fall.
The orchestra’s opening piece, “Love For Sale,” was a harbinger of good things to come from the sixteen-member ensemble, which is headed by Clem De Rosa, the aggregation’s conductor and arranger. He was statesman-like and deferential in his approach. He helped the uninitiated in the audience by leading them in applauding the soloists.
The Berkshire Jazz All-Stars, namely Andy Kelly, guitar; Gary Miller, vibes; Charlie Tokarz, sax; and Louisville transplant Vikki True on vocals, took to the stage joined by the A.J.R.O.’s bassist, Josh Paris, and drummer, Scott Neumann. The Berkshires’ Grande dame of blues, Ms. True, added her vocal spice to several selections from the “Great American Songbook.” Her rendition of “Blue Moon” was nicely crafted and settled into an infectious groove, which was lamentably short-lived. The above-named, homegrown artists alternated with the full orchestra presenting familiar standards for the remainder of the first set.
Don Harris, the soundman, did a great job in balancing microphones for the entire orchestra. He especially got the rhythm section just right. The upright bass was both fat and clear. The Roland electric keyboard, handled by Landon Knoblock, was nicely modulated and seemed an ample substitute for an acoustic. The drums were punchy and crisp. As the various soloists stood up in turn, De Rosa continually prompted the audience to clap for each player, as is the norm for jazz audiences. The individual players were masterful and featured nicely. Perhaps the high point in the concert came when the front row (saxes) stood up projecting their unison riffs to the back of the hall. Both the sound and the audience response were remarkable.
The Berkshires Jazz all-stars, for their part, gave a good account of themselves. Andy Kelly’s guitar had clarity and warmth in the upper register. Miller’s vibes were crisp especially in the up-tempo eighth note passages. Tokarz’s enthusiastic entrances and solo work stood out well, as did the vocalist’s commanding stage presence and jazz improvisations. Harris was, no doubt, working feverishly with the control board to avoid any untoward exigencies in the unforgiving hall, which was, at once, both cavernous and brittle.
Prior to intermission, the all-stars served up some tasty guitar work by Kelly and an improvisational three-way exchange with Miller on vibes and Tokarz on flute. Just before the break the whole orchestra joined in for a rousing rendition of Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home.” Vikki True, to her credit, managed to double the lead trumpet part.
During the second half, Mr. Bride offered an historical retrospective on the giants of the big band era: Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As the orchestra made its way through three selections by each of the aforementioned, these narratives were both interesting and informative, and Mr. Bride had certainly done his homework.
Primarily a fundraiser, the night was a huge success for a jazz concert in Pittsfield, especially on the weekend of July 4th. It certainly was a treat to hear the music associated with “The Greatest Generation” played live by such quality musicians, including the locals. Kudos to BerkshiresJazz, Inc. and to the concert’s sponsors, along with Ed Bride and his associates for their efforts at growing jazz audiences and encouraging jazz education in the Berkshires.