Blair Big Band swings into spring

big-bandThe Blair Big Band gave a cohesive, sparkling performance Friday night with their “Swing into Spring” concert. The event not only featured the strong student ensemble, but outstanding guest performances from top area players. Under Billy Adair’s leadership, the Blair Big Band adheres to the genre’s virtues of precision and discipline as it spotlights an array of talented young musicians whose styles and voices continue to grow and mature.

The 14-song set ran nearly 90 minutes and attracted a near capacity crowd to Ingram Hall. While vintage standards were the dominant theme, there were plenty of interesting contemporary touches and tweaks included via arrangements from Adair, Dean Sorenson, Rob McConnell and Tommy Newsom, among others.

The core 18-piece group (five reeds and trombones, four trumpets and flugelhorns plus a four-piece rhythm section) also included two gifted vocalists. Catey Boulay took the honors on the non-jazz material, delving into rock/pop with the Lennon/McCartney gem “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Later she shifted into country territory with “Crazy,” a classic spiced by Adair’s reworked swing treatment.

Vocalist Chrysa Kovach excelled on more traditional standard/show tune fare, notably “You’re Getting to be a Habit.” She was also impressive on “East of the Sun.” Tenor saxophonist Austin Conner had one of several sharp solos on “You’re Getting to be a Habit,” as did trumpeter Rob Fay.

The musical menu also included a Basie band staple, “The Count Is In.” Other selections from that era’s playbook were “Secret Love,” with some trumpet fireworks provided by Joe Gross, and “Body and Soul,” which provided valuable pianist Shelby Flowers with her strongest solo of the evening.

There was a memorable father/son tenor summit on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” with the elder John Conner demonstrating his son Austin’s primary influences in terms of sound and style. It wasn’t so much a duel as a joint celebration and homage, and a segment that was one among the evening’s many memorable moments.

Versatility is another ensemble attribute, especially in the reed section. Four of the five members double on other instruments, with Zach Green playing alto and soprano sax and flute. Boulay also doubled on bass. The rhythm section of guitarist Richard Droghini, drummer Truman House and Flowers ably handled every selection, with Danny Weinfeld supplying bass support either singly or in conjunction with Boulay.

Guest highlights included Bill Huber’s rangy trombone solo and flashy stage presence throughout “Ballad For Bill,” and a pair of ace performances from tenor saxophonist Denis Solee.” The first came on “Theme for Ernie,” where he displayed the edge and swing that’s been his trademark on a host of Nashville sessions for decades. He followed it with even more exuberant playing on “Louisiana,” which got additional mileage from Huber’s trombone assistance. The duo provided the younger musicians with a master class on how you integrate flash, humor and technical excellence into a polished, exciting performance.

“Just Friends” was a tremendous finale, giving the audience the chance to hear one last flourish from a first-rate band. While no one can predict the future In terms of musical preferences and opportunities, it would be a surprise if several members of the Blair Big Band are not shortly making major contributions to the jazz world.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.