Within less than a week, Niagara has been very fortunate to have had two big bands flood the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre’s stage with their technique, ensemble and showmanship, dazzling two widely different audiences. Last Friday, a mostly student crowd learned about contemporary jazz when NOJO (cross-reference below) stopped by; six days later the Kings of Swing Big Band Show brought its nostalgia express to town, much to the delight of a sold-out hall.
Both “orchestras” are based in Toronto so it wasn’t too surprising to see a common member: Dan Bone used his exceptional skills and panache to great effect (particularly his marvellous tenor sax solos) and was the pride of the reeds.
The start of the evening was stalled by the dreaded “technical” difficulties, which I had to assume were related to the sound system as it proved to be the weakest link in the entire production. We endured a muffled mix, unbalanced blend and microphone squeals that added an unwelcome fourth voice to The Three Moonglows. Oh for the days of pure sound and excellent acoustics!
The Galaxy All-Star Orchestra (or band—the program offered a choice) delivered the co-leaders’ charts and followed their tempo adjustments like true professionals—inspired, no doubt, from the captivating clarinet artistry of Ross Wooldridge who soared through the super-register like most players navigate the chalumeau: “Sing, Sing, Sing,” really did.
To keep the show moving and provide visual as well as tonal variety, we were favoured with six vocalists. The three Irvines (sisters Marsha, Melissa and Wendy) who strutted, sang and cruised through the Andrews Sisters favourites ("Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" reminded me of both the Palm Springs Follies and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook, cross-references below) with style, flair and in-tune harmonizing that had everyone clamouring for more.
Gloria Slade drew appreciative applause from the crowd and gratuitous banter from the brass (Is an invitation to meet after the show for $2.75-beer really necessary? Is that what happens in Las Vegas?), adding extra meaning to the lyric “I’m beginning to see the light.”
Then we had a Frank Sinatra bake-off. Matt Dusk was up first. His rendition of “Luck be a Lady Tonight,” was vocally near-perfect, but the constant flurry of his hands detracted from the power of the tune.
Later (once everyone agreed which song was next) “Mr. Villi” regaled us with a decent Elvis impersonation (“Suspicious Minds”) and then had his turn in the blue-eyes sweepstakes with “I’ve Got The World on a String” which was too frantic by half and failed to nail the top like the master. We’ll call it a draw.
And so the band played on with a line-up that included “Moonlight Serenade,” which never quite achieved the magical reed blend of Glenn Miller’s imagination and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” that—with its perfect pulse, bandstand choreography and warm vocal lines—was a constant pleasure.
By the end, everyone was definitely “In the Mood” and would certainly agree that, with the Kings of Swing, “It [really!] Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” do-wah, do-wah, do do! JWR