It was a perfect summer’s evening at the Stephenson (Rose Garden) Amphitheatre of the Raleigh Little Theatre to sit in the open air listening to the finest “local” jazz musicians, who ranged in age from their teens to veteran musicians, play some of the finest Swing music that one could expect to hear.
Three groups performed at this concert: the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble, the Second Line Stompers and the Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra. Needless to say, all the bands were established and directed by the seemingly indefatigable Gregg Gelb. He has spent the last two decades or more organizing community events (in collaboration with his wife, vocalist Kathy Montgomery Gelb), particularly concerts featuring nationall-known musicians at the Temple Theatre in Sanford. He is also a prolific composer, arranger and educator.
The Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble is a 16-member band that opened the show with a well-executed 30-minute set of standards, which was quite remarkable for a group of teenagers who had only time for three rehearsals. The horns were amazingly cohesive and they featured a particularly strong tenor saxophone solo by Dinah Gorodesky on their last tune ‘Sunday Morning Blues.’ It was unfortunate that the sound system was somewhat inadequate for this venue making it almost impossible to hear the rhythm section –especially the piano and bass; this is something that must be corrected for future concerts. Luckily a microphone was available for vocalist Emma Lanford who sang a very moving rendition of the George Gershwin classic "Summertime." In summary, it would appear that most of these young persons could have a prosperous future in music; one hopes that this is not an oxymoron!
Next up were the Second Line Stompers who performed a fifty-minute set of Dixieland classics with all the verve and feel that one would expect from six seasoned performers of this genre. The eight tunes they played were, as their name implies, of the New Orleans character – although they surprisingly omitted the “Second Line” feature which is the highly syncopated, Latin-inspired rhythm that is so characteristic of New Orleans jazz. However, what they played was exciting from the opening "Royal Garden Blues" to the ending with an appropriate up-tempo version of "Tiger Rag" that featured an absolutely flawless drum solo from Dave Albert. The creative piano and vocal work from Steve Wing was impressive, especially in his feel for chordal playing across the beat – at times he almost sounded like the late Erroll Garner – and still managed to "swing" on "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans." Gregg Gelb also played a remarkably strong clarinet solo on this tune that effectively explored both the low and high ranges of his instrument. Similarly trombonist Dave Wright seemed to have fun evoking the title of "I Would Do Anything For You" via his instrument almost as if he was singing..., which in fact he did quite effectively too! It was good to hear a strong acoustic bass with George Knott in this band, plus his switching to tuba on "Basin Street Blues."
Last, but certainly not least, the Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra demonstrated most convincingly that it can be, if not already is, the gold standard for Big Band jazz in this region of the planet. It is rare to hear such a tight-knit performance from a band of this genre of music (Swing) other than from a small handful of nationally known touring bands. There are several reasons. The overall sound and integration of the horn sections and the rhythm sections is perfect; their dynamics are well controlled and expressive of the music they play. And they do swing! Examples: the drummer Dave Albert presents an object lesson in big band drumming, cf. Buddy Rich; the drums are the engine that must drive the group and therefore his timing and intonation must be always precise and confident. It is. This was evident in their first tune "Hidden 12" written by North Carolina drummer Bobby Harrison; his knack for interesting "fills" between the strictly written phases in the arrangements was truly remarkable. It is not unusual for other members of the rhythm section to be overlooked in a big band – but let it be said that pianist Steve Wing took several memorable solos; unfortunately Steve Boletchek did not have any solos, which was a shame since he had a wonderfully rich bass sound and, together with the pianist and drummer, kept the rhythm section tightly knit throughout. The selection of tunes was right-on with interesting changes of pace, even with a little R&B feel on "Frankie and Johnny" featuring a dynamic trumpet solo from Rob Hill. Vocalist Kathy Montgomery Gelb’s set included three tunes that revealed her professionalism – her perfect pitch enabled her to demonstrate how a ballad ("I’m in the Mood for Love") should be sung. She knows exactly how to phrase such a ballad to make it sound fresh like a poem but still retain its musicality, something she must have absorbed from her father Paul and no less from her friend and mentor Carol Sloane. Her husband Gregg followed her set with a rollicking tenor sax solo on Oliver Nelson’s "Emancipation Blues." Kathy also demonstrated her “down-home feel” for jazz on another classic blues that followed – "Alright OK You Win." The set ended with an aptly named up-tempo piece called "The Wind Machine" with solos all round and another not-unexpected tour-de-force drum solo from Dave Albert.
All in all this was a fine tribute to the memory of "Uncle Paul."