WESTFIELD — The Big Band Era, music from 1933 to 1947, was known for high energy bands that were heavy on brass, so it was a surprise when the New Jersey Festival Orchestra (NJFO) announced they were going to present an hour-long concert in that style. It proved to be a popular, sold-out event on the sunny, Saturday afternoon of October 17. With social distancing, temperature checks and mandatory masks, the audience felt comfortable setting down their lawn chairs in the lavish rear gardens on East Dudley Avenue in Westfield, home of the President of the NJFO Board of Trustees Keith Hertell.
Maestro David Wroe was ebullient when he told the audience that the orchestra called on brass players that he knows to augment their numbers to produce the characteristic big band sound.
“Some of these musicians haven’t worked since New Year’s Eve,” he said, so this was a happy occasion for the patrons and performers alike. This swing music, designed to lift people’s spirits during the Great Depression and through World War II, proved to be the perfect anecdote of live-performance-starved souls. Lots of head-nodding, toe-tapping, and even a mom dancing with her young son were evidence that people were thoroughly engaged in the welcomed event.
The instrumentalists had plenty of room to spread out on the existing back porch of the East Dudley home, with the custom-built platforms for the overflow areas that included rows of brass and, on additional levels, a keyboardist, bass fiddle player, and a drummer.
For those who have attended a David Wroe production, they know there is always an encouragement for attendees to participate in some way in one or two songs. A Glenn Miller arrangement of “Pennsylvania 65000” was the perfect song for Mr. Wroe to invite the audience to shout out the refrain of the title three times when the telephone ringtone was played. That musical piece featured outstanding solos on trumpet and saxophone.
Guest vocalist Rosena Hill Jackson was introduced, and her creamy, velvety voice rang out clear and strong in “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” The heavy brass sound was a perfect balance to her rich voice in this upbeat number. Mr. Wroe confessed that they had “put this together in two weeks,” so he was especially grateful that she was accommodating in joining them. In the number “Our Love is Here to Stay,” arranged by New Jersian Nelson Riddle, plunking of the upright bass and muted trumpet set the requisite jazzy tone. The lower register of Ms. Hill Jackson’s voice is her home, but she soared to notes an octave and a half more above it many times throughout the concert. Echoes of an Audra McDonald-like quality seemed to waft on the brisk breeze through the giant treetops.
When the Maestro mentioned that people sometimes associate a song with a particular artist, it resonated especially when the band played “Moonlight Serenade” one of the signature songs of the 1953 movie, The Glenn Miller Story.” Drummer Tom Mulvaney’s use of brushes on the snare drum (which he later told me was called colloquially “stirring the pot”) was perfect. That number and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” were crowd-pleasers.
Toe-tapping was on full display with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” that told us to “Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worry on the doorstep, just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.” It may have been long associated with the late great Ella Fitzgerald, but Ms. Hill Jackson delivered her own interpretation with aplomb.
In Gershwin’s classic “How Long Has This Been Going On?” lead trumpeter Chris Jaudes walked to the microphone, gave a blockbuster performance, and was treated to a rousing ovation for his efforts. The final song in the afternoon’s lineup was “Sing, Sing, Sing!” that featured spectacular Gene Krupa-like drumming by Mr. Ryan. That number got a well-deserved standing ovation. To send the audience on its way, they played an encore number of “In the Mood”, another song associated with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.