Church was over by 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, but a congregation of devout followers gathered at Lipscomb University’s Collins Auditorium. They were the followers of composer Jimmy Van Heusen and the Nashville Jazz Workshop, to be precise, attending the first Jazz on the Move concert of 2013.
Perfectly in line with the Jazz Workshop’s educational mission, this series of events pairs lectures about legendary jazz composers with performances by Nashville’s jazz elite playing that composer’s tunes. Sunday’s event was a little less academic than previous Jazz on the Move concerts. It was presented as more of a storytelling experience with songs sprinkled throughout a reading of Van Heusen’s biography.
The script was written by Ken Roberts and narrated by Don O. Henry; the music was performed by pianist Lori Mechem, bassist Roger Spencer, drummer Duffy Jackson, saxophonist Denis Solee and vocalists Liz Johnson and Jeff Hall. The seamless interplay between script and song gave the audience both information and entertainment and had an almost Prairie Home Companion vibe. That was definitely a good direction for the series to take, since there were nothing but smiles at the end of the hour-long show. And as an added bonus after the show, members of Van Heusen’s family stepped onstage to say a few words of gratitude to the audience.
On what would have been his 100th birthday, the show was without a doubt a celebration of Van Heusen’s Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-winning work. The band kept the solos to a minimum, and occasionally only played the head one time before diving back into Henry’s narration. The vocalists played it pretty straight – altering melodies, but only minor changes. It was clear there was a great deal of reverence for the tunes themselves from each person on the bandstand.
The band kicked the show off with an easy, swing ballad, “Darn that Dream,” a piece Van Heusen wrote for a musical. Hall was channeling his inner Frank Sinatra for this and other pieces, a choice that made sense, considering Sinatra recorded over 80 Van Heusen tunes and some of Van Heusen’s most popular songs became hits when Sinatra recorded them.
Johnson sang the next tune, “Imagination.” Her sassy vocals lent themselves easily to the 1940s -era tune. And Mechem, Spencer, Jackson and Solee were the obvious choices to play Van Heusen’s classic swing-era catalog. Mechem’s bright and playful comping and solos were highlights in every number.
While Van Heusen may not be as much a household name as other jazz greats like Duke Ellington or Johnny Mercer, his songs are household melodies. They are the songs we’ve heard all our lives. This point became especially clear when Henry stepped up to the mic as a vocalist, singing “The Second Time Around.” Henry isn’t as polished or perfect a singer as Johnson or Hall, but he had a comfortable, familiar sound that seemed so natural on this classic jazz standard. It was the same sound you’d hear from your dad or grandad singing an old swing tune around the house.
And that’s the magic of this composer. He wrote over 800 songs in his lifetime, and a great number of them will live on as jazz standards for generations. And in typical Jazz Workshop fashion, Sunday’s Jazz on the Move pulled together great tunes, great musicians and a great story to delight Nashville jazz fans.