JWR Articles: Live Event - Sounds Like Benny to Me (Conductor: Laura Thomas) - May 10, 2004

Sounds Like Benny to Me

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Swing Swing Swing!

With the echoes of the Big Band Broadcast featuring Holly Larocque and the Mark Ferguson Orchestra (cross-reference below) still reverberating in my ears, it was with great anticipation that I made my way eight days later to the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre for another evening of big-band music—this time in the final concert of the season for the Niagara Symphony.

Principal percussionist Laura Thomas was at the helm, providing solid support throughout and penning many of the arrangements that contributed to the success of the night. Of particular note was the opener: Scott Joplin’s “Elite Syncopations.” Special kudos must go to Thomas not only for the tasty orchestration but finding the spot-on tempo. More often than not, Joplin’s “ragged time” compositions are played too fast (hello there, Gunther Schuller) robbing the music of its lilt and rhythmic tension—traits that can trace themselves back to Bach. This conductor didn’t fall in the speed trap, resulting in an accurate and engaging tribute to, arguably, the Father of North American jazz.

The special guests were Salvatore Andolina and his veteran-rich quartet. Andolina is a convincing advocate for Benny Goodman’s unique blend of instrumental mastery and improvisational savvy. Picking up the soprano sax, Andolina made child’s play out of the formidable challenge of Zez Confrey’s sensational “Dizzy Fingers” (ably assisted by NS concertmaster Valerie Sylvester, who equally sizzled alongside).

Al Jolson’s “Avalon” was a crowd pleaser, featuring thoughtful solos and stylish lines.

But not everything was a hit. It’s true that Goodman recorded most of the standard clarinet concertos, but the performances come across more as “phew, I got through it” than adding any additional insight to the classical masters’ ideas. With the Mozart third movement “Rondo,” Andolina fared no better, lacking a reed that could remain buzz free in the pianissimos and seemed unable to design an articulation plan that was driven by the music rather than convenience.

Then, Salute to the Big Bands, (arranged by C. Custer) just didn’t catch fire—no fault of the musicians, but hearing the lead lines of “In the Mood” rendered by flutes, oboe and clarinets rather than the original quintet of saxophones was just too pastel: Glenn Miller-lite doesn’t cut it.

After intermission things took off. From the opening “Frenesi” the performers went from strength to strength before the final “Let’s Dance Medley” threw the enthusiastic audience into a memory-driven or, for the younger set present, memory-begun frenzy.

Throughout this set, Andolina came into his own, delivering tune after tune of inspired music-making that put a smile on every face—including the band. Pianist Michael Jones was steady and discreet, but, strangely, had no microphone pick-up, putting the overall balance slightly off track; Mike Moser’s guitar contributions were a constant delight, being quietly felt or clearly heard as appropriate; the stand-up bass work of Bill Staebell kept things moving with just enough push to maintain the heat well above medium; but the first star of the evening goes to Tom Kasterek and his spectacularly subtle offerings from the skins—no one would argue that the showstopper was his riveting duet with Staebell in “The Big Noise from Winnetka,” where new meaning to the term “walking bass” came as Kasterek—without missing a beat—hopped over to drum out the bass solo on Staebell’s strings: sensational.

Looking down from that big bandstand in the sky, Goodman could only marvel at the sincerity and talent of those playing homage to his work even as he, no doubt, was itching to sit in. JWR

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Conductor - Laura Thomas
Piano - Michael Jones
Clarinet - Salvatore Andolina
Guitar - Mike Moser
Drums - Tom Kasterek
Bass - Bill Staebell
Elite Syncopations - Scott Joplin
Dizzy Fingers - Zez Confrey
Concerto for Clarinet, "Rondo" - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Salute to the Big Bands - Various, arranged by Calvin Custer
Frenesi - Alberto Dominguez
Let’s Dance Medley - Various
The Big Noise From Winnetka - Bob Haggart
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