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AJO performs finale that leaves patrons smiling
Wednesday, 04 March 2020 00:00

BLACK MOUNTAIN — The 17-piece Asheville Jazz Orchestra finished its red-hot two-set concert with Oscar Hammerstein’s and Jerome Kern’s classic, “Ol’ Man River” (from the 1936 musical “Showboat), triggering a standing ovation from the crowd at White Horse Black Mountain music and arts venue on Feb. 15.

About 60 people attended the roughly two-hour concert featuring big band music that heated up a freezing winter night. (The AJO, as noted on its website, is “dedicated to advancing and preserving the big band jazz tradition.”)

As the cheering patrons pleaded for an encore, Dr. David Wilken, AJO’s director, acted surprised, and then playfully asked, “You want one more? One more? One ... more?”

When the crowd confirmed that, indeed, a final song was what it wanted, he paused and said with a big smile, “If you want one more then ... it would have to be ... ‘When You’re Smiling,” a 1928 composition performed originall by Seger Ellis, but perhaps most memorably by Louis  Armstrong and His Orchestra.

Upon Wilken’s announcement of his choice for the night’s finale, the audience cheered and one man got folks in the mood to smile when he yelled, enthusiastically, to the AJO, “Hit it!”

The band then played an infectiously joyous instrumental version of “When You’re Smiling” and, afterward, after yet more applause, nearly everyone left the concert smiling and appearing satisfied.

The AJO played instrumentals, except for for two songs during each of the two sets that featured its singer, Wendy Jones. She sang Frank Sinatra’s arrangement of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” the Nat King Cole Trio’s rendition of “Frim Fram Sauce” in the first set, and Sinatra’s version of “We’ll Be Together Again” and Cole’s rendition of “I Just Found Out About Love” in the second set. 

Much to the crowd’s delight, Jones’ vocals, as usual, were note-perfect — and she sounded, looked and acted the part of a skilled female jazz singer.

Among the main standouts in the show, besides Wilken, who was excellent as emcee, band leader and lead trombone player, were Jusice Mann, who just continues to get better and better on trombone; along with arguably Asheville best drummer, Rick Dilling, and stellar guitarist Chris Morgan

Wilken, who is billed as “one of the best young big band composers in our country,” featured the performance of many of his works during the show, which could have been a problem for fans wanting to take a nostalgic trip back in time with familiar songs.

However, Wilken, who shows an enthusiasm for, and reverence of, the music of Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, the Count Basic Orchestra, Duke Ellington and other big band greats, has written stellar new songs in the genre that show his deep roots in the tradition, while giving a slight modern twist.

After the concert, before the band left the stage, White Horse co-founder-manager Bob Hinkle announced to the crowd that the AJO would be making its 120th appearance at his music and arts venue at 8 p.m. March 15. Hinkle also said he might just read a short statement that the immortal Yogi Berra once made about jazz music at the AJO’s next White Horse concert. (The AJO will have performed once a month at the White Horse for the past 10 years in March. The AJO was founded in 2005.)

Earlier, in greeting the crowd just prior to the concert, Hinkle told a few jokes, including one that involved the supposition of what law enforcement would say if the AJO’s bus broke down on I-40 before or after a show, closing all of the lanes.

After a pause, Hinkle said the police would — with tongue in cheek — have to warn the public about the jazz band’s predicament as follows: “Be prepared for long ‘jams.’”

A few people chuckled, but nearly everyone smiled at Hinkle’s stab at humor.

Without a word, the AJO opened with “Houdini’s Escape,” an original by Wilken; followed by “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Samantha,” “Truck Stop Coffee,” another Wilken conposition; two songs featuring Jones, the singer; then “The Plunger” and “Eric’s Coffee.”

Both “Samantha” and “The Plunger” were composed by Sammy Nestico.

The first set ended on an exquisite note with Cole Porter’s 1930 classic, “Love for Sale” from the Broadway musical “The New Yorkers” — and a work when it was released was called not a song, but “a tempest in 64 bars,” with a scandal erupting following its debut, as it was banned frombroadcasting on the radio for many years. (Cole Porter once said of the song, “I can’t understand it. You can write a novel about a harlot, paint a picture of a harlot, but you can’t write a song about a harlot.”)

Following a 20-minute break, the band returned for the second (and final) set, opening with “Snipe Hunt,” another original by Wilken,” followed by “Cuerpo y Alma,” “Oneida,” “Dear Old Stockholm,” two songs featuring Jones; then “The Queen Bee,” “Addin’ Down” and the last song of the regular show, “Ol’ Man River.”

— Reviewed by JOHN NORTH/Daily Planet


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