Attendees of Lindy Focus are experiencing a musical abundance that is unheard of in the modern era. The main event is five nights of big band music led by the illustrious Jonathan Stout. It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of what's going in such a large ensemble even for him. During the first sound check of the week, trombonist Jake Handleman, sat down at the piano and started playing random musical cues from "Back to the Future." Other band members smiled in recognition and jumped in. Eventually they re-enacted the climactic rock n roll scene at the end, complete with physical and musical miscues as Marty, the main character, started to disappear from the timeline. Jonathan, who was busy making notes on some charts eventually perked up confused, and then shook his head impressed. "Savants, man," he muttered as he smiled to himself.
Jonathan Stout's Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra is delivering the goods, and people are taking note with more and more people crowding around the bandstand each night to bask in the aural glory. Here are a few things to watch and listen for over the next remaining nights of unprecedented musical goodness.
Everything starts in the rhythm section with Jonathan anchoring his most battle tested quartet that he plays with on the road. His spiritual big band leading brother Craig Gildner is on piano, who he met almost a decade ago when they first played together at DCLX. Bassist, Jason Jurzak, and drummer Josh Collazo almost look like actual brothers in the back row and have developed a rapport that makes the rhythm section loose on a personal level while keeping it tight musically.
During the original big band era, having one or two hot soloists was about as much as most bands could muster. Truely good ones was a rare commodity. When Benny Goodman poached Cootie Williams from Duke Ellington, the jazz press talked about it in the same way basketball uberstar LeBron James left Miami for Cleveland this summer. So Lindy Focus is very blessed to have two incredible soloists in the trumpet section alone with Gordon Au from New York and Ben Polcer out of New Orleans. However, the person to keep an ear out for is lead trumpet player, Ken McGee who is not only a professional musician, but as close to a professional big band musician that you can find today. He comes from DC playing for the US Army Band (That's SFC Ken McGee to you), and spends his free time playing with a variety of big bands throughout the area. Music Director, Ben Polcer calls him one of the top three lead trumpets that he's played with or heard in his entire life.
You have to remember that most of this band has not played with each other before and isn't that familiar with the music. During sound checks, they only have time to run through a handful of songs out of the three sets of music they will play that night. In most cases, they will be seeing what they have to play for the first time about a fraction of a beat before they actually play it on the bandstand during the main dance. It takes a particular kind of world class musician to sight read a jazz arrangement and swing the heck out of it the instant they see it.
Featured vocalist, Laura Windley, has it only slightly easier, but she is still finding herself learning tunes the day of performances such as the Artie shaw classic Moon Ray which got lost in the shuffle of pre-event emails.
Laura is married to trombonist Lucian Cobb who I've covered in my Lindy Focus Behind the Music video from a couple of years ago. He's been a fixture at Lindy Focus almost from the beginning, but he's bonded quickly to first time Lindy Focus musician Jake Handleman out of NYC. Most people would have heard Jake with Gordon Webster. He is clearly the most excited to be here with these other great musicians as you'll constantly hear him here him yelling and laughing in excitement over someone else's solo. Jake is also becoming a bit of a mischievous presence on the bandstand. He almost single handedly turned the small group version of Summit Ridge Drive into a full on big band arrangement by cajoling his bandmates into the fray for the last infectious chorus. When I asked him about it afterwards, he simply replied that no one could resist that riff.
Paul Cosentino felt the same way and held court about that particular riff for several minutes after the Artie Shaw themed night ended. Jonathan Stout wasn't joking around when he said the Shaw stuff is particularly hard. During Special Delivery Stomp, the brass section was literally on the edge of their collective seats as they strained to look over Paul's shoulder while the other reed players held their breathes as Paul powered his way through a song that is rarely played in the modern era for very good reasons. Jonathan notes that Paul's playing blends a level of "muscularity" and nuance that allows him to play such complicated charts while soaring above the din of a big band, a thousand dancers, and fill a 20,000 square foot ballroom without the benefit of a dedicated microphone. Despite being one of the most talented musicians in New Orleans, you could see Aurora Nealand physically lean away from Paul during that song, not envious that he had to play such a difficult piece on the spot. Even the heart and soul of Jonathan's bands, saxophonist Albert Alva was tense. However, Paul will be the first one to tell you that a musician's job is made that much easier when you are surrounded by such a first rate front line such as the one currently assembled at Lindy Focus. Together with Keenan McKenzie of Laura and Lucian's Mint Julep Jazz Band, those four players formed as powerfully appropriate front-line for such a big game Sunday night.
The only way to crack such a line up is to bring in legendary clarinettist Allan Vache for the last two nights. Make no mistake, this is a Big Fucking Deal. With Wycliffe Gordon going to The Snowball with Gordon Webster, even the musicians here are talking about the change in the air that they're sensing concerning the shift in relations between musicians and the dance community. These already talented people are now being joined by near legends who would not consider a dance event not that long ago.
Last night, Meschiya Lake took the stage at the late night to guest sing with the Django Reinhardt tribute band. That isn't so unusual since the leader of that band, guitarist Russell Welch has been playing with Meschiya Lake for years. What is unusual is that Meschiya Lake isn't supposed to be at Lindy Focus. One of the most sought after vocalists in the jazz scene, voted the best vocalist in New Orleans for the past several years, and whose only exposure to Lindy Hop has been through the gigs that she's been hired to play is currently at Lindy Focus just hanging out on a dance pass. She knows something is up.
These are some of the best musicians in the country playing the best music of the best big band leaders of the Swing Era. Next time you hear someone talk about how whatever event had the best music for dancing in the last 15 years, you can confidently look them in they eye and tell them that they are now wrong.
The amazing part? We still have three more nights of this.