2/19: Mooche Strikes Up the Band

RBJO-FINALConductor Joe “Mooche” Muccioli stands in front of the big-band “freight train” that is the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra, when the 17 piece organization takes to the Basie boards for the first in a new series of themed concert events this Sunday, February 24.

Red Bank doesn’t have riverboat casino gambling. There’s no year-round Santa Claus Village; no go-kart track. You’ll need to head way out of town to take a winery tour, or find a decent Shad Festival.

What the town does have is its very own Red Bank Jazz Orchestra — a 17 piece organization of “first call” cats that’s a source of some pride for the borough that birthed the great William “Count” Basie, and the envy of pretty much anyplace this side of Lincoln Center.

Conducted by Red Bank’s own Joe Muccioli — globe-trotting jazz scholar/arranger/bandleader, and artistic director of the borough-based nonprofit Jazz Arts Project — the RBJO is identified most closely with the Sinatra Birthday Bash, the annual event that commandeers the Count Basie Theatre for a tribute to The Chairman of the Board. The momentum generated by those Sinatra salutes over the course of the past six years (and the collective itch by the assembled players to do this more than once or twice a year) spurred the man they call “Mooche” to look into starting up a series of showcase concerts starring the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra — a slate of events that would team the RBJO with special guest performers, and spotlight great composers or classic musicians.

This Sunday afternoon, February 24, the first of two scheduled Jazz Orchestra events at the Basie gets underway, when intrepid trombonist Wycliffe Gordon joins maestro Mooche and the gang for a happening that’s being called nothing less than “a soulful journey through jazz history.”

Getting underway at 4 pm — an hour that traditionally seems more suited to a Sunday-in-the-park serenade or backyard barbecue karaoke, than a big-city blast of Le Jazz Hot — the inaugural RBJO event teams Muccioli — a man who’s worked with everyone from the London Philharmonic to Joe Piscopo — with Gordon, a veteran of the Wynton Marsalis Septet who’s known to fans of NPR’s All Things Considered for his arrangement of the venerable program’s theme — and whose eclectic catalog of recordings includes last year’s Dreams of New Orleans.

Monmouth County jazz-blues chanteuse Layonne Holmes — known for her work with Tim McLoone, Bob Bandiera, Springsteen, Bon Jovi and more — joins the band for a special set of numbers that include the rarely performed Duke Ellington composition “Tell Me It’s the Truth,” from Ellington’s 1966 Sacred Concert. Returning to Red Bank to steer the caboose of the RBJO’s musical “freight train” will be the man they call the World’s Most Recorded Drummer, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie — a legendary session sticksman whose seemingly impossible resume encompasses everyone from Satchmo, Sinatra, Steely Dan and The Stones, to James Brown, Aretha Franklin, BB King and country hat Alan Jackson.

Next up for Mooche and company is a long-awaited April 14 “Gershwin Spectacular” that pays homage to the works of George Gershwin — as interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, whose monumental musical collaboration has been the subject of Muccioli’s scholarship and expertise. Grammy nominated trumpet ace Jon Faddis joins the RBJO for a program highlighted by the epic Davis-Evans take on Porgy & Bess.

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to Joe Muccioli (whose many stories involve everyone from Frank Sinatra Jr. to Manuel Noriega…think about writing those memoirs, Mooche) over espresso in the conversation pit of his Red Bank home and Jazz Arts command center. Flip the record over for more…

LayonneWycliffePurdieTrombonist Wycliffe Gordon (center) is joined by vocalist Layonne Holmes and “Godfather of Groove” Bernard Purdie as bandstand guests of the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra, in a special Sunday matinee big-band concert at the Count Basie Theatre.

upperWETside: I noticed right away that the upcoming concert with Wycliffe Gordon has a start time of 4pm, which is something that’s more along the lines of what the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra would do, rather than a music that was born in some smoky old speakeasies…

JOE MUCCIOLI: It was always the idea to do this as an afternoon show…Wycliffe’s schedule worked out that way, and we think that if we do a show on a Sunday, it’s best not to keep our audience out late at night. Jazz is no longer necessarily viable as club music, outside of a handful of strong markets like New York and Qatar. It’s hard to get people to leave the house, to come out and see live music. We’re so segmented in this culture, that a lot of times we’re ignored if we’re trying to produce good, quality music.

One of the things this series allows me to do is to present honest, truthful, acoustic music in a great concert hall. The concept is to present an orchestral sound in a jazz idiom. We look at the symphony orchestra model as a way to present great music.

So what will the concert on the 24th offer up? Will you be paying tribute to a particular composer, or riffing on a specific theme?

The concert will touch on everything from the New Orleans tradition to modern jazz. Wycliffe is an interesting artist…a great musician, and a technical virtuoso on the trombone. Classical, church music, all influence his playing. And great trombone players are rare these days…although last year during our summer camp at the Basie, we had three trombone players, so there’s hope for the future.

It lends itself to the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra tradition, the big band setting. And Layonne Holmes will be doing some Ellington; including ‘Tell Me It’s the Truth’ from Ellington’s Sacred Concert, which is rarely performed. Plus we’ve got the Godfather of Groove, Bernard Purdie, who’s played with pretty much everybody!

You’ve talked for a while about getting a Gershwin tribute concert together for the Count Basie, and now that it’s finally on their schedule I wonder if this is going to be cover similar territory from the concerts you did with Jon Faddis and various European orchestras?

I’ve done the Gershwin show a couple of dozen times, all over the world, just never in New Jersey. I’ve done it with Randy Brecker, with Lou Soloff, who you might know from Blood Sweat & Tears, and with Jon Faddis, who’s just a monster artist. This material really allows him to show his mastery of his instrument.

And Gershwin’s such a crossover name — classical, jazz, cabaret, Broadway — all kinds of audiences should dig this. When you think about what he did…he wrote ‘I Got Rhythm,’ and the harmonic structure in that song has been used in countless jazz standards ever since. You can’t copyright structure — which is a good thing for a lot of composers, because if he copyrighted what he did there, it would have stifled a lot of modern jazz before it ever got started!

It’s being pitched as a Gershwin Spectacular, but it’s every bit as much a tribute to Miles Davis, and to Gil Evans, who was the arranger on Porgy & Bess and other great Miles albums from that era — they really re-imagined it. The second half of the show is the Miles Davis version of Porgy & Bess.

That’s a record that you’ve spoken of in the past as being a genuine life-changer for you.

Porgy & Bess was the first jazz record I ever heard. I was ten or eleven, just starting to learn the trumpet. It drew me in and never let go — it was like discovering the Rosetta Stone. And it’s such inspiring stuff to hear live, too; like listening to Bach and Beethoven.

In your case, it not only gave you that push to actually get out there and make a living as a trumpet player, but it would eventually speak to the sort of jazz scholar and archivist work that would really cement your reputation.

That’s my bailiwick. I’ve studied, transcribed, researched and recreated that album from all of the old session parts. George Avakian, the guy who signed Miles to Columbia Records, knew what I did, and he would always bug me to give him some of my special pencils.

You have special pencils? Magical, wonderful pencils?

I used to have these pencils made by blind people in Arkansas — electrographically charged lead; great for music writing.

3611384353_a56f5f9b1c_zHow did your involvement with this project — not just the Miles/ Gershwin concert, but the research that you did into the Davis and Evans collaboration — get started in earnest? I can’t help but think that Miles Davis himself couldn’t have been much help; from what I know of him he was quite content to leave entire slabs of his recorded output in the rear view mirror, and he’d just as soon kiss off an entire audience as to challenge himself to gain a whole new generation of listeners, with an altogether new sound… 

Miles wasn’t alone in thinking that when you made a recording, that was it — that was posterity. The statue was finished; now it’s in a museum. From that point, whenever they might have played that material live, it continued to evolve into something else. They might jam for a half hour on something that took five minutes on record.

Anyway, the project started when Quincy Jones was doing a concert with Miles at the Montreux Festival, and he was trying to convince Miles to revisit some of his classic recordings. He said he ‘had to put on a lot of love’ to even get Miles to consider doing any of his old stuff. I had helped out a bit on the box set of Miles and Gil recordings, so Quincy called me and asked me if I could get all the solo parts from Porgy together and send them to Miles — which is easier said than done, because for one thing, as Quincy said ‘this is some hard shit.’ For another thing, it was gonna be an expensive concert to produce. And Gil, much to his wife’s consternation, was always throwing shit away.

Then one day I got a call from Miles’s attorney, who told me in effect, ‘I AM Miles Davis…you deal with me.’ He had a whole warehouse full of stuff that Miles had collected; things that people gave him. Stereo manufacturers would send him all the latest high-end equipment, and it would be sitting around in boxes.

Also in that warehouse were ten or eleven boxes of charts and things…I checked it out and sure enough, here are a lot of the session parts I’ve been looking for. You could see that they changed a lot of it in the studio, from what had been written down.

I see it as the ersatz version, that’s been performed all over the world. Gil and Miles were like one entity. And when you examine the old parts, you see that a lot of what we think Miles was improvising, a lot of it was written by Gil. In fact, Gil wrote a lot of Kind of Blue, uncredited.

I spent many hours getting these parts looking prisitine. After I put it all together I sent the charts to Miles…by messenger; I really should’ve done it myself…because the story goes, Miles took one look at the charts, didn’t say a thing, ran over to the piano and played a bit of the music, turned to the guy and said ‘Tell ’em I’ll do it!’

How about an update on some of the other things you’ve been up to around Red Bank town these past several years…will the Talkin’ Jazz series be back this April at the Basie? And can we expect to see the Summer Jazz Cafe series back at Two River Theater this summer?

I can tell you that Talkin’ Jazz will be back in April, although for the first time we may not be doing all of them on Monday night — one of the talks will be tied into the Gershwin/ Miles Davis show, and that may be on a different night of the week.

And Summer Jazz Cafe will be back. Our faithful crowd is getting the idea that anything we offer will be a quality show.

And we understand that the Jazz Arts Academy program starts up its spring session in April as well. Getting back to what you said earlier about the young trombone players you encountered at the summer camp, do most of the kids who sign up for the program already have a clear idea as to what instrument they favor? Or do tend to guide a lot of the kids into taking up a different thing than they came in looking to learn? Do you go so far as to put instruments into their hands?

We tend to get kids who’ve been playing for two to three years with the program at the Basie, so they’re more or less locked into their instruments. With the Asbury Park program, which we did as a pilot program last summer, we provided instruments for the kids. The idea is to provide kind of an adjunct service to the school music program; to get musical instruments into the hands of the kids, to change their life.

The upperWETside storage archive has a fun interview with Bernard “Pretty” Purdie right here. Tickets ($25 – $55) for Sunday’s show with Wycliffe Gordon are available at the Basie’s online box office — and take it here to reserve tickets for the RBJO’s April 14 tribute to Gershwin and Miles Davis. Check in to the Jazz Arts Project website for updates on other programs and presentations…and be sure to tell ’em “Joe sent me.”

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