The Grey Jazz Big Band: A Concert to Remember
Centrepointe Studio Theatre
Friday, November 9, 2018 – 2 p.m.
The Grey Jazz Big Band has members who were living during World War II – a claim few other bands can make, and one which made them a perfect choice for a “Concert to Remember” on the Remembrance Day weekend.
It was the second consecutive year that the band had performed on this weekend at the Centrepointe Studio Theatre, with a programme which remembered popular and big band swing tunes from across the 20th century. The matinée show sold out the 220-seat theatre in 2017 and came very near to that this year, with only a few seats empty.
There were 17 instrumentalists on stage, plus band director Brian Boggs as conductor, and vocalists Mary Frances Simpson and Bill Luxton. Each wore a poppy in his or her lapel, and several also wore military or RCMP service pins or military service ribbons. The men also wore red neckties, several Canada-flag-themed.
It was an engaging and energetic show, played by musicians who clearly loved and were familiar with the music – so much so that they put too many tunes in the set list and had to drop a few on the fly! They opened with George Gershwin's martial-themed “Strike Up the Band” and rolled right into twirling rhythms of Glenn Miller's WWII-era tune “Tuxedo Junction”, with Luxton explaining that this title referred to a jazz and blues club in the Birmingham, Alabama area.
Throughout, Luxton and Simpson talked about the songs and their history, cracked a few jokes (the audience roared at the one which could be applied to the current occupant of the White House), and introduced band members, always in a friendly and enthusiastic manner. They sang separately and together, often alternating lines in duets such as their warm tribute to the wartime “Forces' Sweetheart” Vera Lynn.
Boggs primarily conducted the band, but occasionally picked up his clarinet as a soloist, beginning with “Opus One”. His lively clarinet lines combined with Kay Denison's ragtime-style piano enlivened the band's brash and fast interpretation of the classic Tommy Dorsey Orchestra number.
The Grey Jazz Big Band was formed in 1987 and draws its members from retired amateur and professional musicians, whose ages range up into the 90s. They rehearse weekly at the Good Companions Seniors Centre, and regularly play concerts and dances, as well as special events like the opening of the Canadian War Museum.
In 1997, the band performed for the Queen and Prince Philip when they visited Ottawa. Luxton told the audience that, as the Queen signed the visitors book on-stage, the Prince turned to the band's then-director and asked him if they played Glenn Miller. He assured the Prince they did, and as the royal couple returned to their seats, the band struck up “Moonlight Serenade”. The current band echoed that performance, giving the tune its full dreamy feel, with Gord Price adding evocative solos.
Highlights of the first set included a pastoral “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, the animated vocal duet in “They Can't Take That Away From Me”, the insinuating bossa nova rhythms of “Água de Beber”, and the brassy and fun “Chattanooga Choo Choo”.
The second set's choices were equally wide-ranging: from the sensual Latin beat of “Sway” to the full-out swing of “Jersey Bounce”, to the muted beauty of “Stranger on the Shore”.
Simpson delivered a heartfelt rendition of Stevie Wonder's “For Once in My Life” to very strong applause from the audience, while Luxton similarly immersed himself in the Tony Bennett signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” – his vocals echoed by vibrant ensemble playing from the band and by Paul Caron's gentle and expressive tenor sax solo. Both vocalists put their hearts on display in a sincere and intense duet in the Nat King Cole number “Unforgettable”.
I particularly liked the full-out big band verve of “Bones for Basie” with the trombonists giving the vivid tune their full attention and energy, highlighted by Denison's emphatic piano, and hard drumming. Also notable was the interaction of the different sections in “Steamsville”, with Price's alto sax accented by sharp interjections from the trumpet and trombone sections.
In general, the band concentrated more on ensemble playing, for example in the upbeat “Darktown Strutters' Ball” – although there were interesting solos from Price, Caron, Boggs, and trombonist Paul Adjeleian, as well as trumpeters Michel Renaud and Sid Arnold.
The band closed with the reminiscent and conversational Bob Hope hit “Thanks for the Memory”. The audience responded to its closing notes with an immediate standing ovation – and repeated the standing ovation after the encore, a full-out version of “In the Mood” with Simpson and Luxton dancing together to the music in front of the band.
Throughout you could see the joy these musicians took in this style of music and playing with each other – and that joy was communicated to the audience, who were involved and interested, laughing and clapping. Many stayed to talk to the musicians at the end. It was the kind of show you left with a smile on your face.
The Grey Jazz Big Band performs next on November 25 at the monthly big band dances at the Dovercourt Recreation Centre. Admission to the dances is free, but donations are encouraged.
- Strike Up the Band [George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin]
- Tuxedo Junction [Erskine Hawkins and Bill Johnson and Julian Dash, Buddy Feyne]
- Opus One [Sy Oliver, Sid Garris]
- Vera Lynn medley: The White Cliffs of Dover, I'll be Seeing You, We'll Meet Again
- A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square [Manning Sherwin, Eric Maschwitz]
- Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me) [Sam Stept, Lew Brown and Charles Tobias]
- Take the 'A' Train [Billy Strayhorn]
- Moonlight Serenade [Glenn Miller, Mitchell Parish]
- They Can't Take That Away From Me [George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin]
- Água de Beber [Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes/Norman Gimbel]
- Blue Skies [Irving Berlin]
- Chattanooga Choo Choo [Harry Warren, Mack Gordon]
- Sway [Luis Demetrio, Norman Gimbel]
- Bones for Basie [Alan Hare]
- Stranger on the Shore [Acker Bilk]
- For Once in My Life [Stevie Wonder]
- Jersey Bounce [Tiny Bradshaw and Eddie Johnson and Bobby Plater, Buddy Feyne]
- Unforgettable [Irving Gordon]
- Steamsville [Mark Taylor]
- I Left My Heart in San Francisco [George Cory, Douglass Cross]
- At Last [Mack Gordon and Harry Warren]
- Darktown Strutters' Ball [Shelton Brooks]
- Thanks for the Memory [Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin]
- (encore) In the Mood [Joe Garland, Glenn Miller]
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