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‘Tribute To Broadway’ An Sjo Crowd Pleaser Despite Its Rough Spots

Spokane Jazz Orchestra Friday, May 5, The Met

The Spokane Jazz Orchestra wound up its 20th anniversary season Friday with a “Tribute to Broadway.” A diversion from mainstream big band jazz is good once in a while, especially with so many popular tunes and great arrangements available. Enough show tunes have crossed over to become standards that it is hardly a step out of character.

There seems to be a need for a professional big band in the area. The audience for this kind of music is pretty strong, judging from the attendance Friday night; and while there were a few there who might remember catching the big band wave of the ‘30s and ‘40s, most were younger apprecionados.

The Spokane Jazz Orchestra is trying very hard to be that band, fighting the battles - financial, personnel and audience development - that most struggling arts organizations face.

Friday’s concert had some great moments. The inclusion of Ann Fennessy to sing show tunes was a real plus: She adapted easily and confidently to the various gradations of jazz to swing to pop.

Her chameleon-like voice shifted from a smoky chanteuse alto for “Memory” to hints of Ella Fitzgerald in her light and agile approach to Gershwin and Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started.”

Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin”’ could have been written for Fennessy and the mischievous glint in her eyes, but there seemed to be some confusion over the tempo.

The band started slow and picked up when Fennessy made her entrance. The tempo never seemed to really settle into a groove and kept tugging back and forth, as if singer and band had unresolved differences on how the tune should go.

There were some great instrumental moments also. “Summertime,” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” featured trombonist Dave Stultz. He came through with a perfect balance of the right and left brain. His technique and control were at a point where his soulful abandon sounded effortless.

Trumpeter Andy Plamondon provided some tasty and colorful licks on several numbers, including Lerner and Lane’s “On A Clear Day.” “Mack the Knife,” a Kurt Weill tune from the “Threepenny Opera,” gave Gary Edighoffer a chance to bring forth a flurry of notes, all with a place and purpose.

The SJO ensemble as a whole was a little disappointing. Balance was off and on all night, occasionally obscuring Fennessy or the melodic lines.

The electric bass was consistently too loud: On the pop-style charts, such as “Memory” or “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” a lot of bass is just right, but for the swing tunes and most of the other stuff, an upright bass would have been preferable. Even turning the knob down a notch would have helped.

The band’s intonation started off a little rough, but improved substantially throughout the evening.

Ensemble togetherness was also up and down. There was a feeling that the musicians were so busy reading the charts that they forgot to lay back, have a good time and swing.

Nevertheless, problems with consistency did not dampen the spirits of the audience. There was some strong playing and many temptations to tap the toes.

And it’s hard to go wrong with good arrangements of some of the best-known tunes of the century.