Swinging into Sinatra, at Basie Bash

Joe Muccioli (left) conducts the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra in the fifth annual Sinatra Birthday Bash event, Friday night at Basie’s place — an occasion that also marks the release of the RBJO’s first CD.

Perhaps the smartest thing that Frank Sinatra ever did in his 82 years on “Frank’s world” was to come out swingin’ into the month of December — a cold and sometimes cruel month of holiday pressures and pleasures, to be sure, but also a season of giving in which a new commemorative box set or tribute arrives swaddled in gift wrap at each anniversary of the Chairman of the Board’s birth.

Over at the Count Basie Theatre — that regional headquarters for everything from Scrooge and The Nutcracker to The Messiah and various jinglebell rockers — there’s one seasonal signifier that trades the Santa hat for a sportily cocked fedora, and it’s a little local tradition called the Sinatra Birthday Bash.

The brainchild of the Red Bank-based nonprofit Jazz Arts Project and its artistic director — globetrotting arranger-conductor and jazz scholar Joe Muccioli — the annual concert event brings together a marvelous mix of voices with the 17 piece Red Bank Jazz Orchestra, an organization of sought-after session aces hand-picked and conducted by the maestro named “Mooche.” Best of all, they get to do their thing on the famous stage of the place named for one of Sinatra’s favorite partners in swing, William “Count” Basie.

This Friday night, December 9, Muccioli and company celebrate the 96th birthday of “Old Blue Eyes” in a fifth annual Bash program that also marks a milestone for the RBJO — the release of the acclaimed orchestra’s first commercial recording.

Clockwise from top left: Bobby Ballack (Sea Girt), Layonne Holmes (Long Branch), Felix Truex (Brielle) and Tina Siciliano (Lincroft) are among the guest vocalists helping Maestro Mooche and company pay tribute to the Chairman on December 9.

The maiden release on the new Hip City Jazz imprint, the album Strike Up the Band finds the RBJO cutting loose in classic old-school style on a baker’s dozen standards made famous by Duke Ellington (“The Mooche”), Tommy Dorsey (“I’ll Never Smile Again”), Sarah Vaughan (“After You’ve Gone”) and even Charlie Chaplin (“Smile”) — to say nothing of Messrs. Sinatra (“Come Fly With Me”) and Basie (“The Kid from Red Bank” and the signature “One O’Clock Jump”).

That Sinatra-Basie connection is no accident of course — the famously skinny kid from Hoboken and the somewhat more portly Kid From Red Bank made some big, bold and beautiful music together during the 1950s and 60s, on sublimely swinging projects like Sinatra-Basie, It Might As Well Be Swing, and the hilariously swaggering Rat Pack artifact Sinatra at the Sands.

Recording “live in studio” at Watermusic Studios in Sinatra’s Hoboken hometurf, Muccioli and band (an accomplished group of “first call” cats who’ve played with everyone from Streisand to Springsteen to Sinatra himself) were joined on a few cuts by guest vocalists Champian Fulton, Tony DeSare — and Joe Piscopo, the Saturday Night Sinatra for whom Muccioli has served as music director for years (and who starred in the very first Birthday Bash at the Basie in 2007).

“The whole thing came about as a joke,” recalls Muccioli in regard to the Sinatra concert’s elevation to the pantheon of local tradition. “After the first show was over, I told (Basie CEO Numa Saisselin) that we can top this next year by getting a hundred different singers and giving them all a hat.”

“I learned then that you don’t speak lightly about such things with Numa.”

When the curtain comes up on the Basie bandstand Friday night, it will be the culmination of a months-long process in which Muccioli and the Basie directors sift through hundreds of audition entries from polished pros and enthusiastic amateurs of every conceivable age and background; carefully culling a select group of spotlighted vocalists, then designing, arranging and rehearsing a set of Sinatra standards carefully matched to each singer’s vocal range and personality. Adding to the pre-concert jitters is the fact that each year brings together a completely different assembly of singers, with the “old school vibe” of the big band the primary draw and constant.

Featured in this year’s edition are some Monmouth County performers who are headliners in their own right — including Felix Truex, the talented keyboardist and songwriter who’s done exceptional work for the Ocean Grove-based Cabaret for Life organization. Layonne Holmes, a member of Tim McLoone and the Shirleys (and a singer who’s worked with The Boss among many others) brings her celebrated savvy for the “Great Ladies of Jazz” to the mic, while veteran Sinatra stylist Bobby Ballack teams up with the RBJO for the first time.

Middletown teen singer and actress Tina Siciliano represents the next generation of performers to follow in Frank’s footsteps, and others in the 2011 group hail from such stomping grounds as NYC, Philly and Ridgefield, CT.

Proceeds from Friday’s show will benefit the Education and Scholarship Fund of the Jazz Arts Academy, the program for teenaged music students established as a partnership between Jazz Arts Project and the Count’s Performing Arts Academy, with the support of the Monmouth County Arts Council. A combo of young musicians from the JAA will perform in a special segment of the Birthday Bash bill.

“I’m very pleased about the connection we have to the Basie,” says Muccioli. “If it weren’t for places like this and the Two River Theater, we wouldn’t even exist as an organization.”

“It can be a blessing and a curse, just holding your own in a town like Red Bank, where there’s so much going on throughout the year,” the conductor adds. “But this event has definitely created its own momentum — and we’ll just have to keep from going nuts over the fact that in four years, it’ll be the Sinatra centennial!”

Tickets for the 5th annual Sinatra Birthday Bash start at $25 and are available here, with a $100 VIP option including a catered pre-show reception at the theater’s street-level Carlton Lounge. Look for CDs of Strike Up the Band available for purchase at the show, and check  for updates on downloads and other ways of buying the debut album by the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra.

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