Centre for the Arts’ annual big band bash is another sign that spring has arrived. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band warmed the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre with a generous two-set helping of charts from the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Acker Bilk—“Stranger on the Shore” featuring Merlin Williams’ reedy bass clarinet—and Buddy Rich. It’s the first time in living memory that the standard crowd-pleasers of “In the Mood&edquo; or “Sing Sing Sing” (cross-references below) didn’t make the lineup, but the enthusiastic fans were more than content to hear such less-played titles—notably “Manhattan Murals,” and Ellington’s Carnegie Hall version of “Take the A Train,” which featured Bob Fenton’s impassioned, if slightly more dissonant than intended, extended piano solo.
Galloway’s “regulation” soprano saxophone and easy patter set the tone both artistically and socially as he guided his charges through the numbers and drew the audience into his musical world. Even the errant light bulb that delayed the opening downbeat turned into a fun moment as tenor sax extraordinaire David Caldwell burst into a riff from “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” before the replacement was engaged: “Let there be light,” indeed.
Another substitution was required for the ailing Hart Wheeler. Kira Payne’s insertion into the front-row saxophones worked out beautifully, culminating in Basie’s finger-burning showstopper, “Whirlybird”—a riveting battle of the tenors (hello there Pavarotti!) where the audience ended up the winners.
Towards the end of the night, Jim Galloway (co-composed with bassist Rosemary Galloway) finally had a ballade to himself in “Blue Reverie.” His creamy flexible tone—subtly sweeter as it rose above the staff—was a constant pleasure; the brief, but telling “chat” with Williams (now on baritone sax) spoke musical volumes without uttering a word.
Of the sections, the reeds were the pick of the instrumental crop. The four trumpets, which included John MacLeod (also a potent flugelhorn practitioner and soloist, ably confirmed whenever he stood to deliver a solo) brought lots of power and gusto to the arrangements, but when called upon to screech, fell just short of “nailed that” results. Lead trombone, Laurie Bower, served up a very tasty “Makin’ Whoopee,” complete with discreet vibrato and heady growls. However, his colleagues were occasionally caught “Misbehavin’” (one literally, in the Fats Waller offering) leaving some of the ensembles a tad ragged.
The rhythm section kept the proceedings mostly on track, with only a few near train wrecks arising when drummer Don Vickery’s decibel level (he seemed to be positioned in the stage’s sweet spot) covered the combined output of his intrepid colleagues.
Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” was the perfect finish to the wide-ranging evening. Caldwell was most certainly let loose and responded with a slice of “Shortnin’ Bread” and scintillating riffs, after which the tune was punctuated by a high “Five Oh” and a shot of the Stooges before the crowd jumped to their feet in appreciation.
Now, if only a dance floor could be added to the mix. JWR