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Guest vocalist helps SJO revive cabaret favorites for season opener


Great jazz was born in the speakeasies.

It rose up out of the cabarets and nightclubs of Harlem, New Orleans, Paris and Chicago, and was crafted by players as skilled as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt.

This is the legacy the Spokane Jazz Orchestra will celebrate on Saturday when the 17-piece big band kicks off its new season with a show called “Cabaret,” featuring guest vocalist Heather Villa.

Tom Molter, trombonist and SJO musical director, said the idea behind this concert was a little time travel.

“I like to present music from our forefathers in jazz,” he said. “The whole idea was to take you back into time and hear all this great music from all these great cabarets over the world, whether it be Django Reinhardt in Paris in the 1930s or Louis Armstrong in the 1920 in Chicago, or going to the Cotton Club and hearing the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1920s and ’30s.”

Guest vocalist Villa, who used to perform with the Spokane band 6 Foot Swing, first sang with the orchestra in 2010 for a show called “Downtown Divas.” Molter, who’d worked with 6 Foot Swing as a sideman, said he’s always been impressed with how Villa holds a stage, as well as her vocal chops.

“We all noticed she has this powerful voice that can sing over the top of a big band, which is not easy to do. It’s kind of like being an opera singer,” Molter said. “She’s really fun to work with, she has a great attitude and a great voice. She really gets into the music.”

Villa will perform on 10 or 11 numbers Saturday night, Molter said. She’s going to be presented as a soloist and as an accompanying musician.

“Back in that time period, especially in the early ’30s before Frank Sinatra and all those great mega singers … the singers were kind of like sidemen in the band,” he said. “They would come out and sing a couple numbers and maybe there would be a couple instrumental numbers. In the swing era, the song might begin with a long introduction by the orchestra, then the singer would come in halfway through and sing the song, then it would end with the orchestra. So the singer is an extension of the orchestra, another instrument.”

Molter said he is looking forward to performing several pieces Saturday. One of them is called “The Cotton Club Suite,” which Molter arranged from Ellington’s original compositions. The piece includes four dance songs Ellington wrote to perform at the famed Harlem nightclub. They’ll do the original Ellington version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” – a song that’s been recorded by everyone from Reinhardt and Thelonious Monk to Tony Bennett and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Other works on the bill include songs by Louis Prima, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, whose song “Drum Boogie” “fits Heather like a glove,” Molter said.