With a concert that features a Grammy-winning guest vocalist and the release of its first CD, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra is celebrating its 30th birthday with a big-band bang.
The SJO opens its 30th season on Friday at The Met with legendary jazz singer Diane Schuur.
The event also marks the release of “It’s About Time,” the first recorded album by the nation’s oldest continually performing professional community jazz orchestra.
“We’re just hitting our stride,” said Music Director Dan Keberle. “We’re doing our first album and it seems like the community is more aware. I talk to people and they are very excited to have Diane Schuur playing with the SJO.”
Originally from Tacoma, Schuur has been called “The First Lady of Jazz.” That description is fitting, since it was a White House appearance that led to her first major-label deal.
While gigging around the Northwest in 1975, an informal backstage audition with trumpeter Doc Severinsen landed Schuur a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Master saxman Stan Getz was so impressed he invited her to a young talent showcase at the White House, which resulted in her 1984 debut album “Deedles” on the GRP label.
Over the next 13 years Schuur made 11 albums for GRP including “Timeless” (1986) and “Diane Schuur & The Count Basie Orchestra” (1987). She received the Grammy for best jazz vocalist for both albums.
Throughout her career Schuur has sung with and garnered praise from such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and B.B. King.
During Friday’s concert’s Schuur and the SJO will perform several of the hard-swinging songs from her album with the Count Basie Orchestra.
“That’s right up the SJO’s alley,” said Keberle, who has served as the group’s music director for nine years and has been a member for nearly 17 years.
Known for her refined technique, sprawling vocal range and astounding adaptability, Schuur is touring in support of her 2003 studio set, “Midnight,” produced by Barry Manilow. The album features an orchestra of 31 strings and horns.
Schuur is the highest-profile artist to appear with the SJO since it accompanied Diana Krall at the Spokane Opera House in 1999 to kick off the group’s 25th season.
“But (Krall) is more mellow and sensual, whereas (Schuur) is more hard-driving, foot-stomping, get-up-and-dance-to-this,” Keberle said.
Friday’s opening, SJO-only portion of the concert features tunes from “It’s About Time.” The 12-track album has a Northwest theme with nine tracks written or arranged by composers in the region, including SJO members Keberle, Tom Molter, Greg Yasinitsky and Brent Edstrom. Longtime guest vocalist Charlotte Carruthers is featured on the album as well.
The biggest and maybe the only holdup to the group producing an album of its own was money, Keberle said. Since the SJO is run by the nonprofit Spokane Jazz Society, it took a deeper commitment from its board of directors to come up with extra money to pay for the recording, he said.
“It’s About Time” was recorded at Ferris High School, with nearly all 17 musicians recording their parts in one take. All of the musicians who recorded on the album will perform in Friday’s concert, save for Carruthers, who appears at the SJO’s holiday concert in December.
The remainder of the 30th season includes a local celebrities concert in March, featuring some of Spokane’s most popular media and music personalities, and concludes in May with a tribute to Mildred Bailey. The Tekoa, Wash., native, one of the most popular female vocalists of the 1930s, was well-known for her plump figure contrasted by her high-pitched, childlike voice.