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Asheville Jazz Orchestra clicks on all cylinders
Wednesday, 01 November 2017 20:56

Guest vocalist Jesse Junior delights with soulful crooning

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BLACK MOUNTAIN — The 20-piece Asheville Jazz Orchestra made musical sparks fly — and provided a few laughs — during a free-wheeling concert on Oct. 21 at the iconic White Horse nightclub.

The show was not only a joy to hear and see, the AJO added some unusually playful touches, including a nod to Halloween, with big-band-style renditions of theme songs from two mid-1960s television shows, including “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family.” 

During their rendition of the “Addams Family Theme Song,” the musicians played their instrumental parts (as in the original song) — and then, in studied seriousness (as their instruments dangled around their necks, in many cases),  suddenly raised their arms above their heads and snapped their fingers, in perfect rhythm, all to the audience’s sheer delight.The effect was truly zany — and effective — for the usually strait-laced AJO.

And, as a more esoteric seasonal/Halloween salute, the band performed a riveting instrumental version of 1942’s “That Old Black Magic,” first recorded and released by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra.

In the absence of the AJO’s regular vocalist, Wendy Jones (who was at another engagement), Asheville’s Jesse Earl Junior filled in and appeared to delight the crowd with his soulful crooning. 

Junior is a Milwaukee native, New York City “expatriate” and — now — a self-described “Asheville Jazzvillian”

About 75 people attended the two-hour concert, which featured two sets.

Most of the concert, as per AJO tradition, was performed without a singer, but Junior joined the band for two songs in each of the two sets, which is standard practice for the band.

In addition, during the last song of the regular show, 1939’s “Cherokee,” Junior returned to the stage  to sing a couple verses. (“Cherokee” was originally performed by Charles Barnet and His Orchestra.)

The crowd gave the AJO a standing ovation and then pleaded for an encore, so the band played the instrumental “Sweet Georgia Brown,” elicting yet another standing ovation and calls — in vain — for another encore.)

In the first set, Junior sang “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “All Or Nothing at All” — and, in  the final stanza, “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

His deep, baritone voice, combined with soulful and skilled phrasing of the lyrics, were electrifying. Junior truly crooned his numbers as though he meant every word. He came across as charismactic — and seemed to connect well with both the crowd and the band.

Among the instrumental highlights, besides those mentioned earlier, was “Sing, Sing, Sing,” written and first recorded by Louis Prima with the New Orleans Gang in 1936 (but most famously recorded a year later by Bennie Goodman). The dynamic performances by Joel Helfand on clarinet and Rick Dilling on drums were especially notable.

Other standouts among the instrumental cover songs were “Begin the Beguine,” a Cole Porter classic that went to No. 1 with a 1938 instrumental recording by Artie Shaw; and 1940s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which was Frank Sinatra’s first hit with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

The AJO also performed several original compositions by muaix director-trombonist David Wilken, who sported a black beret at the concert. Especially memorable was his rollicking “Truck Stop Coffee.” (Wilken is program coordinator for MusicWorks Asheville, an El Sistema after-school music program that teaches elementary school children life skills through classical music.)

Toward the end of the first set, Jesse Earl Junior was introduced to the crowd as a vocalist “making his Asheville Jazz Orchestra debut,” as Junior took the stage to sing two songs.

In turn, Junior smiled and said, “I’m so happy to finally being able to sing with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra....”

He then noted, wistfully, that he remembered the AJO’s early days — in 2009 and 2010, when the AJO used to play every Monday night at The Rocket Club in West Asheville. (The Rocket Club closed later in 2010. Wilken founded the AJO in 2005.)

Junior said he used to attend many of their shows and dreamed of, some day, singing with the AJO. “Well,” he added, “The Rocket Club is gone and here we are,” as he rocketed into a moving rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

As the crowd applauded enthusiastically afterward, Junior said, “Yeah, I’m glad to get to sing with them (the AJO). When you’ve got a band like this, they carry you (a vocalist) along.”

In a nod to the AJO’s regular singer, Junior told the audience, “I know you’re used to seeing the lovely and talented Wendy Jones here, but she graciously allowed me to be here.”

After Junior’s cover of “All Or Nothing At All,” the crowd again applauded enthusistically, Wilken noted that “we will be bringing him out next set for a couple more songs.”

The AJO will perform again at the White Horse at 8 p.m. Nov. 24. Tickets are $15.

Other upcoming White Horse shows include the Justin Ray Jazz Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1, The Black Feathers band at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and Chuck Brodsky at 8 p.m. Nov. 3.

What’s more, White Horse will celebrate its 9th anniversary with a concert at 8 p.m. Nov. 4, according to co-owner Bob Hinkle. The gala will feature Marcel Anton, The Belfast Boys, Richard Shulman and other musicians. Anton is billed as “a vocalist, composer, guitarist, percussionist, actor, teacher, mystic and poet of Native American and New Orleans Creole descent.”



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