Whatever happened to the Big Band sound? It was a legend nearly fifty years ago. Woody Herman was impressive, but Duke Ellington and Count Basie were knockouts. I recall in the mid-seventies playing a vinyl Count Basie album whenever I held parties and people would say “What is that?” “That,” I’d say, is the swing band to beat all swing bands.” People were amazed, yet thought I lived in another time zone. I once had a visiting Irish poet friend, James Simmons, who (after a sixteen-hour drinking spree at over twenty bars and promise to pay notes) woke me up after two hours of sleep with a Basie record blaring, and him dancing around my living room at sunrise (bedroom for his stay) while his wife lay sprawled unconscious on the floor. (We had heard Basie’s old trombone player Dicky Wells with the Countsmen at the old West End jazz club that night and closed the joint. Simmons had published a poem about Dicky’s horn.)
That vibe still exists! I heard it today at the Woodstock Playhouse with Bop Island Big Band which featured 13 horns, double bassist Steve LaSpina, drummer Sherrie Miracle, and pianist Mike Holober under the direction of Artistic Director Doug Sertl—plus a fabulous British Vocalist, but we’ll get to that later.
They opened with “Morning Sunshine” made notable by Thad Jones’ Jazz Orchestra; here with a fine alto sax solo by John F. Mastrioianni and a subtle tenor trombone solo by Jason Jackson. You can’t really go wrong with five saxophones, four trombones, three trumpets, and one flugelhorn flying in high gear!
The multi-recorded classic “You stepped out of a dream” (1940), which has been recorded by nearly a hundred great artists, was next, and by then the band had warmed up to near boiling point. Herm Matlock heated up the room with his trumpet on this number.
Bill Todd on alto sax was outstanding in “I could write a book” from the Rogers and Hart Broadway hit Pal Joey (1950). This was one of the few songs that I fervently appreciated at about the age of five when I did not yet know that I would write a few books.
Another standard, “Brother John,” closed out the first set. Here pianist and composer Holober laid down some smooth ripples on the keyboard in an arrangement by Rick Montalbano. This was an elegy tribute piece by Elvin Jones about Brother John Sellers (discovered by Mahalia Jackson); Sellers became a West Coast gospel and blues singer, writing lyrics for B.B. King and Elvis Presley. Harvey Tibbs on trombone put out some fine sounds here.
But it was the second half that this train on stage went express. With British singer Polly Gibbons, whom Sertl introduced as a cross between broadcaster Mike Murphy and jazz singer Shirley Horn, there was real fireworks on stage. “Oh, what a Beautiful Mornin’” by Rogers and Hammerstein (in an arrangement by Count Basie and Ray Charles) got the Playhouse jumping.
Gibbons’ version of “Basin Street Blues” recorded on her first demo album when she was merely eighteen brought us up close into the big swing band era. This arrangement by Bill Conliff suited Gibbons to a tee and it is available on her 2017 cd release Is it Me? Gibbons has great vocal dynamics, an unerring sense if rhythm, and a voice range that will make you plead for more. She is an undiscovered virtuoso secret, but that secret won’t be kept for long.
Gibbons then offered the premiere of a new nocturne ballad she had written in smoky-lounge style. “Afterhours.” The refrain “I’ll keep lovin’ you, afterhours” has a haunting, mellow quality. This ballad will have traction.
Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” (made famous by Ella Fitzgerald) provided an opportunity for comparison with Ella Fitzgerald and Gibbons came out more than exciting. This featured a pleasant piano solo by Holober and a great bass solo by LaSpina, while Miracle was fabulous on drums. Gibbons followed this up with a cover of Bessie Smith’s and Catherine Russell’s “I want a little suger in my bowl” which offered raucous spice that the audience did not expect.
Singer-songwriter Gibbons concluded with "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," a 1938 composition by Duke Ellington, with lyrics added by Irving Mills, Henry Nemo and John Redmond. Gibbons has an established career in Britain, yet has come over here to record her third U.S. Album. This arrangement featured Matt Finley on hot and seasoned flugelhorn, which provided a solid roundness to the symphonic effect of the other 12 blazing horns attending the ecstasy of this wonderful brass and song evening.
But they are not gone into the mist of yesterday. They will be back again at The Woodstock Playhouse on Sunday, November 4 at 4 pm with featured pianist Ted Rosenthal; again on Sunday, November 18, at 4 pm with guest trombonist and arranger Slide Hampton; once more on Sunday, December 16, at 4 pm with Grammy Award-winner, composer, and trumpeter Randy Brecker.