Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A hard-swinging reminder that Woody evolved with the times

The Stardust Memories Big Band paid tribute to the musical legacy of clarinetist and bandleader Woody Herman on Tuesday, March 2 at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs FL. For this evening, and the prior night at Cambier Park in neighboring Naples, bandleader Craig Christman turned the reins over to baritone saxophonist Mike Brignola, who joined the band this season.

Stardust Memories Big Band in Bonita Springs
The highly regarded bari player was an integral member of Woody's band from 1981 until the leader's death in 1987. Since then, Fort Lauderdale--based Brignola has served as road manager and personnel director for the Woody Herman Orchestra under the leadership of tenor saxophonist Frank Tiberi.

His concert mix resulted in a hard-swinging reminder that Woody Herman evolved with the times over his band's 50-year run. Brignola had a lot from which to choose.Herman and his outfit recorded about 875 tunes between the late 1930s and his death in 1987.

His chronological selections included classics like "Woodchopper's Ball" (featuring Christman on clarinet), "Early Autumn" and "Four Brothers," which were a nightly requirement for the Herman band because of their popularity. 

Inn the second half, Brignola worked his way toward things the band recorded in the 1970s and '80s, including Alan Broadbent's arrangement of the Steely Dan hit "Aja"and John Oddo's Herman band arrangement of the Billy Preston song "You Are So Beautiful. The night included 17 Herman-related songs, two of them by written by Duke Ellington (the only big bandleader whose material Herman would perform).

The Stardust Memories Big Band was up to the challenge, and then some, its chairs filled by a slew of southern and central Florida players who are established leaders in their own right. Besides Brignola, they included saxophonist Terry Myers, trumpeter-singer David Pruyn, trumpeter Bob Zottola, pianist Jerry Stawski, and bassist Don Mopsick.

Favorite moments: 

  • The unbridled swing as the band roared through Neal Hefti's "The Good Earth," which he wrote for Herman's band in 1945.
  • Pruyn's frisky vocal take on "I've Got News For You," one of the night's three vocal numbers that honored Herman' regular vocal features.
  •  Brandon Younger's searing tenor sax solo on "Aja." 
  • Trombonist George Mancini's poignant solo on the Preston ballad popularized by singer Joe Cocker. 
  • The solo interplay on a John Fedchock arrangement of Duke's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Trombonists Mancini and Jeff Lego went head to head, then trumpeters Bob Zottola and Ryan Chapman did the same, before Stawski put an exclamation point on it with his closing solo.

The traditional big band format, with the three horn sections stacked behind each other in close proximity, doesn't lend itself to jazz in the age of pandemic. Christman & Co. offered a pleasing workaround. It spaced the horn players in a half-oval across the width of the bandshell, with the rhythm section set six or more feet behind them. It worked just fine.

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