The Register Guard: Famed flutist Laws lifts big band to new heights

Famed flutist Laws lifts big band to new heights

By Doug Anders

For The Register-Guard

Published: (Monday, Apr 9, 2012 10:06AM) Midnight, April 9

SPRINGFIELD — A sold-out Wildish Theater audience was treated Friday night to magically epic memories of a kind usually found in international metropolitan concert halls.

Devoted local jazz musicians teamed up with a world-renowned flute master, delivering 12 ingeniously conceived pieces played with inspired passion.

Jim Olsen, director of the big band Swing Shift, deserves credit for an extraordinary effort to see years of musical visions reach fruition. A highly skilled arranger and composer in his own right, Olsen extended an invitation to a role model from his youth, Grammy-nominated jazz flutist Hubert Laws, to play with the band.

The resulting show gave new meaning to the term “big band.” These musicians traversed their way through a richly diverse collection of jazz and classical music, expressing themselves in magnitudes larger than their number.

Olsen gets an “A” grade, not only for preparing exceptionally unique and lush arrangements of jazz and classical material, but for guiding his band through opening number jitters to a consistently solid performance all night.

The adventurous arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” struck a perfect balance between faithfulness to the original and expressions of swinging jazz in the tradition of Duke Ellington’s, Dizzy Gillespie’s and Don Sebesky’s bands. The piece was arranged powerfully and performed in such a way that it captured the primal emotions and audacity Stravinsky intended.

Known for decades for his unique interpretations of classical, pop and jazz selections, Laws — recognized as a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts — displayed proven mastery of his instrument with each note. Laws also expertly partnered with the other musicians, despite their brief rehearsal time.

Olsen’s uptempo arrangement of Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps to Heaven” provided a sophisticated playground for Laws to enter the show on piccolo. His solo over the band’s quiet vamp at the song’s end, set a high bar and seemingly paid homage to the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and John Philip Sousa.

Throughout the night’s material — ranging from modern jazz staples such as Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dare” and Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” to such classical pieces as Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane”and Laws’ originals — the jazz master continually raised the bar, inspiring his collaborators to their best performance I have heard to date.

With a solo version of “Amazing Grace,” Laws brought the evening to a stunning climax. Originally recorded with orchestra in 1972, hearing him render the song this way to a breathless audience was truly heart-clutching.

Although the program’s scale and performance were grand, the pretentiousness sometimes found in symphony halls was noticeably absent. The fun these musicians were having together was key to the show’s magic. The band wove its way through harmonically complex horn passages like a choir executing precision dynamics.

Highlights included trombone work by Joe Freuen that made it seem as if he were speaking through the instrument; rhythmically and harmonically expressive piano playing by Andria Martin, echoing Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans; and vibrant bass and flute exchanges between Christoph Greiner and Laws.

The encore, “This Bass Was Made for Walking” (complete with Jim Olsen’s ebullient flute solo in the spirit of Rahsaan Roland Kirk), summarized an evening’s celebration.

Swing Shift convincingly proved future shows are well worth attending.

Doug Anders is the host of KLCC-FM’s “Jazz Inside Out,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.