& THE EMPIRE JAZZ ORCHESTRA
Schenectady County Community College
April 8, 2014
By Eric Ciarmello
He walked like them, he dressed like them, he spoke like them. He stood in the lobby of the SCCC School of Music, chatting in a group of four or five, as if he had just come to see what this Empire Jazz Orchestra was all about. It wasn’t Dave Holland’s lack of presence that rendered him unnoticed, but his lack of ego.
The hall had all the buzz of a Broadway show. A 17-piece big band set-up, sat vacant atop the stage of the auditorium, eagerly awaiting their musicians arrival. As the audience filed into their seats, Holland followed, eager to catch the first act of music.
Act 1, scene 1. The Empire Jazz Orchestra came out of the gates with a Gordon Goodwin arrangement of Miles Davis’ "Seven Steps to Heaven". After a somewhat precarious start, Bob Halek, Otto Gardner and Cliff Brucker quickly snapped the horns back to attention. Halek dug the pocket out of his ride just deep enough for Brucker and Gardner to nestle in comfortably. From that point on the intensity of the show rose exponentially.
The next hour was packed with figurative costume, scene and set changes as the band morphed to fit the needs of the music. Kevin Barcomb stepped into the shoes of Joe Henderson while being featured on an arrangement of "A Shade of Jade". In the process, Barcomb brought a modern, assertive flare to the tune, each buzz and pop of his tenor saxophone left you wanting more, much more.
EJO changed costumes again bringing out the ever-wonderful Colleen Pratt. Unfortunate for the listener, her volume through the house was a bit low. However, Jim Corigliano’s beautifully, thoughtful arrangements made up for any vocal punch we may have been lacking. The second vocal chart, "Come Back to Me", again, artfully arranged by Mr. Corigliano, disproved any doubters to what kind of powerhouse big band we have sitting in our backyard. Corigliano’s writing opened the band up and allowed for each dignified section to shine in both technique and sound.
Scene three. “We’re going to go back to 1935,” said Meckley, as they proceeded into "Avalon" by Vincent Rose. The band stepped into the iconic style of the era. Several crafty solos followed, however, one in particular stood out. As Keith Pray rose, we were transported to a dimly lit, 1930’s nightclub; a spot light slices through a gray haze of cigarette smoke, eventually falling upon the melodic fingers of Mr. Pray.
“We’re going to play one more and take a short intermission to re-set for our special guest,” said Meckley, no doubt, regretting his words, as the audience stirred with anticipation, likely missing the prowess of the final tune. Oliver Nelson provided a swinging arrangement of "Empty Ballroom Blues" with several burning solos from the likes of Pray, Steve Lambert, Brucker and Mike Novakowski.
After a short intermission the audience shuffled back to their seats, pinched their neighbor and hunkered down for an hour of musical indulgence.
He may have flown under the radar while amongst us commoners, but once he took the stage there was no mistaking his stature. If there were any vacant seats in the packed Carl B. Taylor auditorium, Holland’s presence filled them.
“There is a great jazz audience in this part of the world, but then again, how can there not be with a band like this,” said Holland as he gestured towards EJO. Dave Holland then proceeded to the back of the stage, nestled between the utility man, Cliff Brucker, (on vibes) and Bob Halek. How could he have led a 17-piece big band from the back of the stage? Tone. Precision. Time. Musicality. Respect.
Detailed descriptions of each tune performed must be difficult to find; the sheer weight of Holland’s first notes were enough to force the pen from any writer’s hand.
Holland’s attack and tone production is parallel to that of the finest Steinway. As if impeccable tone weren’t enough, his time was even better. There was no room for any fluctuation, Holland’s precision wouldn’t allow for it. Any wobble in time came and went unnoticed by the listener due to Holland’s cavernous pocket; the band had no choice but to be sucked back into his grooving gravity.
The group played 5 songs in the set, not including the encore. The final act was a slow, fat, sultry blues dedicated to Charles Mingus preceding a captivating work entitled “Triple Dance,” made up of three bar phrases instead of the traditional four.
The set was loaded with excellence, not only in the rhythm section, but also some cooking baritone saxophone provided by Kevin Barcomb, and some deep, musical conversations between Ben O’Shea, Keith Pray and Brian Patneaude.
The night ended with an encore and of course a standing ovation from the audience. There were countless brilliant aspects to extract from this performance, the obvious being the witness of a jazz legend and a true artist, but the less obvious was a mutual feeling of pride. The audience walked out of SCCC School of Music honored to be a “Schenectadian,” proud to be the home of the Empire Jazz Orchestra and excited for future artistic endeavors sure to be on the horizon.
Eric Ciarmello is a Schenectady grown saxophonist and educator who holds a Music Education degree from the College of Saint Rose and is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Jazz Studies from Purchase Conservatory of Music. In addition to leading his own groups, Eric performs with local groups including Alex Torres and His Latin Orchestra, The Eric Binder Trio and the Joey Thomas Big Band.