ARCHIVE: ‘Sinatras’ Sing, the Basie Swings

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Joe Muccioli with frequent Saturday Night Sinatra, Joe Piscopo, photographed last year at Retromedia Sound in Red Bank.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit December 10, 2008)

One’s an Army major just back from Afghanistan. Another’s a mechanic who’s never performed in front of a real audience before. There’s a father-son combo, a young aspiring actress, a well-known rocker with a not-so-secret passion for the Great American Songbook, and an entertainer who’s been at this so long they’ve taken to calling him “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

They come to pay tribute to Frank Sinatra, on the very night that the now-and-forever Chairman of the Board (1915-1998) would have turned 93 “You Make Me Feel So Young” years of age. This Friday, twelve singers of wildly disparate backgrounds — male and female, young and old, showbiz warhorses and wannabes — will stand in front of a big-band jazz orchestra led by Red Bank resident and renowned arranger-conductor Joe Muccioli, and sing songs made famous by the only famous Jerseyan the Boss could ever call boss.

What’s more, they’ll be doing it on the stage of a landmark venue named for one of the Chairman’s favorite collaborators — William “Count” Basie, the borough-born bandleader with whom Sinatra recorded a handful of eminently swingin’ albums.

If Muccioli plays his hunches right, the spirits of Sinatra and Basie will smile upon aSinatra Birthday Bash that could become a tradition here among the Nutcrackers and jinglebells of a downtown Red Bank December.

In addition to being a world-class jazz scholar, globe-trotting conductor and co-founder of the Red Bank-based Jazz Arts Project, “Mooch” is familiar as the musical director for another Frank-channeling Jersey Joe — Joe Piscopo, with whom he presented a Sinatra tribute at the Basie last year.

In 2008, the conductor will work with a cast that includes Shore saloon singer John Esposito, NYC jazz artists Champian FultonRon Sunshine and Bill Gagliardi, plus Colts Neck’s Audra Taliercio, Newark’s Stephen Lovell McLean and Bobby Bandiera — the Jersey Jukebox who fronts the Basie “house band” Jersey Shore Rock ‘N Soul Revue, and who pleaded with the producers to give him a shot at the sublime swingtune “The Best is Yet to Come.”

Red Bank oRBit talked jazz and things with Muccioli at Zebu, a place that has served as unofficial office for all of us at one time or another.

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RED BANK ORBIT: So I guess the most obvious question would be, where’s Piscopo while all this is going on?

JOE MUCCIOLI: We did his show last year at the Basie and it worked out well, but for this year I wanted to try and do something a little different; work with a whole lot of different voices — it became ten and then twelve singers, along with a 17-piece orchestra.

And who are these singers? Are they all professionals, or are there a couple of inspired amateurs in the mix?

John Esposito I’m sure you know from the local scene, and we have a few other people who appear regularly in the New York area. But most of them, with the exception of one or two people, have never performed in front of an audience, at least not one of this size.

How did you go about auditioning them? Was it like American Idol, with you sitting at a card table?

No, we had everyone submit CDs and demos. Since this is a co-production of the Count Basie with the Jazz Arts Project, we put out a call for singers through the Basie. We got almost 200 submissions, and me and Numa (Saisselin, Count Basie Theatre CEO) listened to all of them and whittled it down to ten people.

At the last minute, we received a demo from a major in the Army, Rory Aylward, who was stationed in Afghanistan, and when we heard it we knew we had to make room for him in our show. Then Bobby Bandiera wanted to do “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and he’s so much part of what goes on at the Basie that we made room for him in the program also. Yvonne (Scudiery) from The Count’s Cool School has been working with some of her students as well.

And do all of these people select the songs that they want to sing?

I’m actually choosing what everybody sings, picking out what I thought each singer would sound best at doing — one of them might have wanted to do something really uptempo, but turn out to be among our best ballad singers.

We’ve got a really diverse bunch of people here — students, a retired accountant, an auto body mechanic, a cancer survivor — they all have their own unique story, and that’s what I stress to the singers; being able to find the story in the song, as Sinatra did.

Sounds like you’re gonna be moving people on and off that stage like Ed Sullivan, with the plate spinners and dog acts. So who’s in this band? Anybody we might know?

We’ve got Lew Soloff, who was the trumpeter in Blood, Sweat and Tears for many years. Wayne Goodman on trombone, a lot of the people I work with regularly with Piscopo and other projects.

You know, I’m kind of sick about this, but I turned down a huge gig, that same night, a corporate party in Atlantic City where I would have conducted a 30 piece orchestra, backing Frank Sinatra Jr. But I just have so much invested in this event!

Still, it’s gotta be something of a relief to be partnered up with the Basie here, so that you can handle the music end of things without having to worry about renting Porta-Potties and whatnot.

I’d love to put eighty percent of my energy into the artistic side — we want to produce an interesting artistic experience. So, yes, having the theatre involved is important, and our nonprofit status is important; you defray much of your costs through grants and donations and don’t have to charge a hundred bucks to get in. I’m such a socialist that if I could figure out a way to make everything free, I would.

How’s it going out there this year, having to compete with other arts organizations for those ever-dwindling donations and underwriters?

Right, the banks and the corporations have cut way back. If they do anything at all, they’d of course favor cancer research and other charities. Look at it this way, we’re a fledgling organization; this is our third year, and in our first three years we’ve had over fifty events. If we get past this year, we’re doing great as far as I’m concerned.

About the whole jazz concert thing — I realize you work on a large scale yourself, but isn’t jazz at heart more a creature of the nightclubs than the public-funded arts institutions? I think of it as something that grew up with smoke and liquor.

Jazz also grew up with Jim Crow; with dancing, with a lot of great movements in our society…it grew up with America. It symbolizes American democracy. There’s kind of a divide now, where you have the club scene, catering to popular tastes, and the arts-related, concert scene.

But it is democratic in that you put several people into a place, a situation, and you honor all of their abilities, but at the same time you have rules, an underlying structure…a Constitution. And at the heart of it is, if you can play — if you can show me something, whoever you are — I’m listening.

So you’d argue against the point that jazz is a thing largely played and enjoyed by older people?

Just the other day we did a show at McLoone’s in Asbury with Duke Ellington’s son Edward and his band — we did a workshop earlier in the day for kids, and a lot of kids came out to it — all from Asbury High School. They went home and changed, got dressed up like they were playing a big concert, and they were all really into it.

Younger musicians want to play as fast, as many notes as possible. As a musician ages, to my ears, they’ll play a little less — maybe sing instead, or just be more discreet in their work; use less notes.

I’ve worked with Clark Terry, who’s very old at this point, in a wheelchair — at one show they wheeled him onto the stage, handed him his horn, and he leaned over — it looked to everybody like he was going to fall right out of his chair — he leaned over and said, “The golden years suck.”

And with that he picked up his horn and played like he was twenty years old for the next hour.

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