Frank Sinatra and Count Basie — seen suiting up for an episode of the 1960s TV variety show Hollywood Palace — return in spirit this Friday night, when the birthday of the Skinny Kid from Hoboken is celebrated in song at the venue named after the legendary “Kid from Red Bank.”
Call it Frank’s World — a land that stretches from the Hoboken clamhouses where a young and skinny Frank Sinatra first sang for his supper; to the Atlantic City casinos and big-town auditoriums where the established entertainer played to sellout crowds well into his eighth decade. And in between, a thousand pizza joints and ristorantes where the Sinatra soundtrack has never stopped.
Frank’s World took a beating all around when superstorm Sandy swaggered through the region — a catastrophe that birthed a bevy of benefit concerts, and allowed the area’s professional musicians to step up in the way that musicians have long been known to do. It’s a phenomenon about which Joe Muccioli observes, “I know people who have been on call to take part in all sorts of benefit events, who are themselves in the same boat as the hardest-hit people in the area.”
The conductor of the 18 piece Red Bank Jazz Orchestra (and artistic director of the borough-based nonprofit Jazz Arts Project) returns to the Count Basie Theatre this Friday for one of his most passionate pet projects — the Sinatra Birthday Bash, the sixth annual edition of which takes the famous stage of the place named for one of Sinatra’s favorite partners in swing, William “Count” Basie, at 8 pm.
The legacy of the Jersey-bred Chairman of the Board (born 97 years ago this December 12) will once again be celebrated in song and in style, with Muccioli and the RBJO backing a cast of performers that traditionally “runs the gamut from journeyman saloon singers, to soap opera actors, to total novices with a dream.” Adding to the backstory for the event is the fact that most of the participating vocalists hail from many of the most Sandy-savaged places on the map — and adding to the advance buzz is the eleventh-hour addition of a special return guest who also happens to be a supreme Sinatra fan.
“We’ve got Joe Piscopo scheduled to appear, even though he’s also scheduled himself for knee surgery that same day,” says Muccioli of the SNL alumnus and Jersey-strong entertainer who’s made his impression of “Old Blues Eyes” a centerpiece of his nightclub act for years — and who starred in the very first Sinatra Birthday Bash back in 2007.
Speaking from the Talking Stick Casino in Arizona, where he joined Piscopo as bandleader for a gig this past weekend, the man called “Mooche” explains that “Joe likes the idea of being Mr. Showbiz; of carrying on no matter what.”
As with all entries in the Birthday Bash series, however, the spotlight shines on the featured performers who tend not to be household names in themselves — a collection of talented individuals who are culled from hundreds of auditioning hopefuls, and matched with an ever-changing selection of songs from the Chairman’s 60-year career as the century’s premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook.
It’s a cast that includes three singers from the greater Red Bank green — Joe Minnella (Tinton Falls), Kelly Ross (Red Bank) and Bob Tuzzo (Middletown) — as well as Tony Corrao (Marlboro), Joe DeSarle (Staten Island), Nancy Nelson (Bernardsville), Rebecca Orsatti (Atlantic City), Daniel Pugliese (Westfield) and Elya Vasiliev (Morganville).
All concerned will be working with the RBJO’s ace session cats to honor the signature sound of Sinatra, his favorite songwriters and arrangers — with a special nod to the collaborations with the Count that resulted in sublimely swinging projects like It Might As Well Be Swing, and the vintage Vegas artifact Sinatra at the Sands.
“It’s scary for the singers who are accustomed to working with just a piano or small combo, to stand out in front of a freight train like that,” says Muccioli, adding that “I’ve consistently been surprised and delighted in how the singers put their own style, their own story into the mix.”
Top-ticket proceeds for Friday night’s event 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.
With numerous Sandy-related rebuilding efforts added to the mix of seasonal solicitations for disease research, food drives and other charitable endeavors, Muccioli is well aware of the demands placed upon a donor’s generosity this time of year — observing that “arts programs tend to take a back seat to other causes…but the arts are an essential part of what makes this community worth preserving.”
And, with the centennial of Francis Albert Sinatra’s birth a mere three years away, maestro Mooche has plans to kick up the show’s format a notch, with a possible reunion of past participants, and the prospect of having the concert recorded for broadcast on public television stations. For now, the idea is “to do the best, most bang-up, professional show we can;” one in which the draw of the big jazz orchestra and the classy “Carnegie Hall” setting add to the “old school vibe.”
“Everyone’s extremely nervous in the days leading up to the event,” says Muccioli. “Then right after the show it’s the same thing each year — ‘when can we do this again’?”
Take it here to reserve tickets for the Sinatra Birthday Bash ($25 and $49.50, with a limited number of $75 VIP tickets including access to a pre-show cocktail reception). Then check the Count Basie Theatre website for details on other upcoming events presented by Jazz Arts Project — including a RBJO concert with special guest Wycliffe Gordon on February 24, 2013, and a Gershwin Spectacular salute on April 24, 2013.