Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2013: Omer Avital

Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra: Bring on the Swing!

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The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra has big band pleasure in store for Winnipeg listeners. In mid-November, they’ll share the sweet swing of Count Basie, and in time for Christmas, they bring out Ellington’s Nutcracker.

William James Basie—Count Basie—grew up more interested in playing piano for silent films than going to school in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey. In 1924, at the age of 20, he went to Harlem, a jazz hotbed, where he began to perform and tour with many of the prominent artists. At 25, he joined Bennie Moten’s big band in Kansas City, and half a dozen years later, formed his own band.

He led that group for almost five decades, putting his own stamp on jazz orchestra performance and repertoire. He’s known for riffing with the whole big band, for spotlighting the rhythm section, for using top-notch arrangers to expand the band’s expressive range, and for splitting the tenor saxophones—an innovation necessitated by internal grumbling in the sax section.

Many beloved jazz artists came up through Basie’s band—saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, guitarist Freddie Green, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams among them. Many others welcomed the chance to perform or record with the Basie Orchestra. He was much loved by musicians for his wit and warmth, and his musicality was of the highest order.

Count Basie died in 1984, but the Count Basie Orchestra continues to tour and record, and features many musicians the Count himself selected. Derrick Gardner, now a permanent part of Winnipeg’s jazz community, is an alumnus of that orchestra, and he’s the featured soloist for “Basie and Beyond,” the WJO’s November 17 concert. Not only does Derrick have a sweet sound and an unbelievable range, but he embodies the special Kansas City swing that made Basie’s band stand out from the beginning. As Basie said himself, “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.” Derrick swings easy.

Joining Derrick is up-and-coming singing sensation, Joanna Majoko. Joanna’s vocals are warm and soulful, and she has been packing crowds into local clubs over the past couple of years. She was singled out for a special performance scholarship from the Orsara Jazz Camp in Italy two summers ago, and is poised to create a place for herself in the larger world of music when she graduates from the Jazz Studies program this year. She is a perfect fit for Basie classics like “April in Paris.”

Count Basie’s counterpart in the top echelons of jazz orchestras was Duke Ellington, and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra celebrates Christmas this year with Ellington’s jazz interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Released in 1960, the arrangement by Ellington and his long-time musical partner Billy Strayhorn doesn’t simply reassign Tchaikovsky’s lush symphonic sounds to a jazz orchestra, but reimagines the suite from within the jazz idiom and with an ear to showcasing all that is special about the jazz orchestra.

Where the backbone of Tchaikovsky’s orchestra is the string section, the ground of Ellington’s orchestra is the rhythm section. As always, Ellington and Strayhorn work their magic with both reeds and brass over that energizing rhythm section. The Nutcracker Suite—fully reconfigured, re-ordered, and renamed with playful titles like “Peanut Brittle Brigade” and “Danse of the Floreadores”—is one of the most impressive and successful revisions in the classical-jazz repertoire, and an ongoing audience favourite.

Special guest at this December 8 concert is the young Winnipeg jazz bassist, Devon Gillingham, who is now finishing his first term at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. The WJO will perform “Remember to Forget,” an orchestra chart which won him first prize in the inaugural Essentially Ellington student composition competition this past spring.

The Muriel Richardson Auditorium at the Winnipeg Art Gallery will be alive with swinging sounds in the afternoon and again in the evening on both these dates. Arrive early to hear local high school jazz orchestras share their hard work and enthusiasm for this genre of music as well…

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