Nashville Symphony is swinging at the Schermerhorn

schramIt’s a little known fact in these parts, but “Count” Basie and Albert-George Schram were once amigos, bosom buddies, comrades in musical arms.

“I used to work with Basie,” Schram matter-of-factly told the audience Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. “That was a long time ago, before he was dead.”

Schram, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s ebullient and dry-witted pops conductor, is leading the NSO this weekend in a program of big-band music. Naturally, the concert features the familiar tunes of Basie, Glenn Miller and Cab Calloway. But Schram’s set list is no mere exercise in nostalgia. On Thursday night, he had the ensemble swinging and rocking, in performances that also included some hard-driving contemporary jazz and rockabilly. Every note was played with joyous energy.

eldredThe success of Thursday night’s concert had a lot to do with the NSO’s guest performers. Vocalists Mike Eldred and Abigail “Abby” Burke put their powerful, stylized voices to good use in the standards of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Otis Blackwell, among others.

Eldred brought a certain contemporary pop sensibility to his songs. His rendition of Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” resonated with the intensity of rock. An expert vocal marksman, Eldred hit every one of his stratospheric high notes dead center, with power and perfect intonation.

burke2Burke sang her numbers with a smoky contralto and with remarkable expressiveness. She sang Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” with urgency, as if her life depended on conveying the emotions in this music. She delivered the rat-a-tat-tat lines of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” with speed and vocal virtuosity.

In addition to his singers, Schram also had one other secret weapon: the Nashville Jazz Orchestra. Members of Music City’s premier big band are sitting in with the NSO this weekend. On Thursday, trumpeter and director Jim Williamson and his musicians provided most of the evening’s memorable instrumental solos.

Williamson’s and trombonist Barry Green’s solos made Basie’s thrice-familiar “One O’Clock Jump” sound as fresh and spontaneous as an improvisation. The Jazz Orchestra’s impressive complement of sax players – Matt Davich, Mark Douthit, Denis Solee, Doug Moffet and Jimmy Bowland – played Joe Garland’s famous dance tune “In the Mood” with irresistible drive and energy.

The Jazz Orchestra was also largely responsible for providing the program with a contemporary sound. Electric guitarist Paul Carroll Binkley, for instance, played rollicking licks in Gordon Goodwin’s “Jazz Police.” Goodwin, by the way, earns a handsome living by day as a Hollywood film composer – his credits include everything from The Incredibles and Remember the Titans to Snakes on a Plane and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Goodwin’s first love, however, was jazz. And the music he’s written for his touring Big Phat Band includes some of the most exciting contemporary music created in years. Only Gordon Goodwin, it would seem, could take J.S. Bach’s simple “Two Part Invention in D minor” and turn it into an extended, swinging and utterly original jazz improvisation. Schram and his musicians played this Goodwin arrangement with sparkle and charm.

The talent was overflowing from the stage on Thursday night. None shined as brightly as Schram. Indeed, he provided the evening’s highlight, a lighthearted sing-along of the Cab Calloway standard “Minnie the Moocher.” Schram sang with a convincing and gravelly Louis Armstrong-like voice. The audience delivered the “Hi-De-Ho” response with alacrity.

In all, it was a joyous night of jazz. Big-band fans should make every effort to attend this weekend’s swinging repeat concerts. As Schram likes to say, “it’s all good.”

If you go

Nashville Symphony performs a program of big-band music. Vocalists Mike Eldred and Abigail “Abby” Burke along with members of the Nashville Jazz Orchestra assist. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18 and Saturday, Jan. 19 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $44 to $129. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.