It was 1940 again on a cold and rainy evening at the fine Cary Arts Center. If you were a “senior citizen,” or a citizen of a certain age, chances are good that you and numerous others collaborated to fill that facility to the brim for a welcome visit by the Artie Shaw Orchestra.
To help keep that worthy swing spirit alive, the latest inheritor of Artie Shaw’s great mantle is clarinetist Matt Koza, leader of the group since the retirement of his mentor, Dick Johnson, in 2008. As director, Koza properly resurrected the laid back persona of his big band predecessors, with clear commentary and quips as appropriate. (In the dim light and with a bit of squinting, one could discern the resemblance of this clarinetist to a young Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw’s famous contemporary and competitor.)
These sixteen players (4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 5 saxophones, drums, bass, piano and clarinet) did their level best, choosing from their vast repertory those pieces that transported the appreciative audience, beginning the twenty-odd numbers with “Nightmare” (their identified Theme Song) and continuing with the familiar “S’Wonderful” and “Moonglow.” The Latin rhythms of “Frenisi” showed off Koza’s clarinet talents, as did a crowd favorite, “Begin the Beguine.”
The big band chanteuse was not to be forgotten. A noted jazz singer in her own right, Barbara Rosene ably played the role of a neo-Helen Forrest. Among her several offerings, she was a charmer crooning “…now that the stars are in your eyes, I’m Beginning to See the Light.” She honored Jerome Kern with a pleasing version of “All the Things You Are.” Later in the evening she soothed the audience with “…darling I think of you, Day In, Day Out.”
A particularly “cool” sound resulted from revisiting Shaw’s later Gramercy Five ensemble. This combination of clarinet, trumpet, drums, bass and piano shone brightly in “Summit Ridge Drive.” One of the more appealing works of the evening was an unusual arrangement (for this group) of “Dancing in the Dark.” Here two of the saxophonists picked up oboe and flute as a powerful spice for the piece, providing for some uniquely nostalgic strains.
They did the “Back Bay Shuffle” and yet another obvious crowd-pleaser, “Stardust.” As if to illustrate the remarkable staying power of Artie Shaw (1910-2004), Koza introduced “Waltz for Debby,” a number written by Bill Evans and taken up by Shaw as late as the 1980’s. At the conclusion they created a “Traffic Jam,” returning once to audience demand with “Mack the Knife,” a piece again demonstrating clarinet virtuosity.
Here’s a group dedicated to the proposition that nostalgia is indeed all that it used to be, and performing to the enthusiastic approbation of the audience. Anecdotal evidence might be valuable in identifying one particular virtue of the program: A seasoned attendee, obviously pleased with the proceedings, was heard to observe that for now “we don’t have to listen to that rap crap.”