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Bill Meckley

Bret Wery

Keith Pray

Curits Fuller

Colleen Pratt & Keith Pray

photos by Rudy Lu

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Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium
Schenectady County Community College
Schenectady, NY
April 21, 2009

by J Hunter

The message in the box above the program’s set list dedicated the evening to “the memory and spirit of our friends Jack Fragomeni and David Newman.” There’ve been some good words written about Fragomeni, from Greg Haymes’ expression of loss in the TU to our own Jeff Waggoner’s tales of having the late guitarist as a teacher. For those who missed Empire Jazz Orchestra’s spring show last year, David “Fathead” Newman was the guest artist, and the set he played had all the snarl and buzz that comes from a tenor player as talented as he was.
EJO musical director William Meckley didn’t address the dedication until after his big band’s opening number, a raucous take on Benny Carter’s “Rompin’ at the Reno.” Meckley told us that Newman wanted to do a recording with the EJO, but things never came together before Newman passed last year. Meckley also said he didn’t want the evening to go negative (My words, not his), but he wanted us all to know “Jack’s in our thoughts tonight.” The situation was handled with elegance and class, and Meckley deserves plaudits for that.
Meckley followed “Reno with a ballistic take on Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” that fluently translated bebop’s patron saint into a big-band context. Brian Patneaude’s mic hadn’t been up far enough on “Reno”, so some of that solo was missed. No such problem here: Patneaude’s tenor was deep, wide, and totally appropriate for classic Bird. Steve Lambert’s follow-up solo proved there was a good reason why the trumpet section is placed at the back of the stage. Lambert had it turned up to 11 on this evening, as did Terry Gordon on Bill Holman’s Warner Brothers cartoon send-up “Zamboni.” That was the final number of the first set, where Meckley informed us “If we have something strange to do, (that) is where we’re gonna do it!”
It wouldn’t be an EJO concert without Colleen Pratt – a spirit shared by the audience, whop gave her a big pop when she came out during the first set and tucked into Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “I Won’t Dance.” (Meckley preceded this by sharing that there is no bigger pleasure for a trombone player than to do a Nelson Riddle song.) Pratt was smiling, relaxed, and every bit the performer as she worked through Al Cohn’s “Night Bird” and Moe Koffman’s “Swinging Shepard Blues.” The latter tune had Pratt making divine harmony with Keith Pray’s soprano sax. Pratt’s pure, bright voice is a joy to hear, and the material was perfect for her – particularly that arrangement of “Night Bird”, which had been written for the great Anita O’Day.
To give you an idea of how long guest artist Curtis Fuller has been around, he said his bustling tune “Arabia” – which opened the second set – was inspired by him watching “the rich kids come to school in their Duesenbergs while I rode the bus!” (Duesenberg was a 1930s car company that was not “too big to fail.”) Anyone familiar with the Skidmore Jazz Institute knows Fuller, who’s been a faculty member for several years. But given that documenting the players this trombone legend has worked with could wipe out a small forest (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and Hank Mobley are just a small sample), every jazz fan has probably experienced Fuller at some time.
What the crowd here experienced was a set of big band that shared a penchant for layering harmonies in ways most modern composers won’t even touch. Almost all the pieces were composed by Fuller, and all the music was arranged by Don Sickler; three years ago, Sickler got Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet to re-create the labyrinthine sound of Thelonious Monk without using a piano. Pieces like “Alamode” and “I Will Tell Her” were tailor-made for the EJO, and they took to the material like starving lions to a broken-down lunch wagon. Pray simply wailed on alto during “Time Off”, Kevin Barcomb blew soulful tenor on “Sweetness”, and Rick Rosoff’s roaring trombone solo on Kenny Dorham’s “Minor Holiday” got a big grin from Fuller, along with a hand signal that unquestionably said, You got it!
It took a little while for Fuller to get warmed up: His first solos on “Arabia” and “Bit of Heaven” lacked shape and power. But bit by bit, Fuller got himself dialed in; he was totally on his game by “Time Off”, quoting the theme from Summer of ’42 during his solo, and Fuller was in full cry on the impromptu encore “Night Train,” Even if he hadn’t found his groove, Fuller’s humor and between-song stories about his travels through jazz made him worth twice the admission price.
Considering the quality of the players and the dedication of Meckley, an EJO show is guaranteed to produce fine musicianship and excellent entertainment. But pair them with a legend like Curtis Fuller, and the performance becomes an event. This year was no exception, and I’m already psyched for next year’s show.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.