Saturday, December 7, 2013

Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra's Swinging Into The Holidays

--> On Friday morning I got a Facebook email from a friend: “CV Jazz Orchestra show tonight at the State. 7:30. Good bunch, tons of talent, enjoyable show. You might get a kick out of it and find an article.” My plans for the evening were still up in the air. Billy Krause was at the Local Store, G-String Theory with Noel Hanson was at the House of Rock, and Two Frets Up were playing in Mondovi. CVJO's gig was on my radar—a dim, vague blip—but I tend toward the more informal venues (that's a highfaluting of saying I like bars) and don't really consider myself a Jazz Girl. But I also like mixing it up. And the realization that I wouldn't typically go to the event if I didn't have this blog propelled me out to The State Theater to see “The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra Presents Swinging Into The Holidays.” I'm so glad I did.

CVJO was conceived in 2009 when a bunch of musicians were hanging out at the Joynt, talking. Geoff Peterson (drums) told me, “We wanted to play the music we love in a venue where people wanted to hear us.” He added that the core group consist of Josh Gallagher (piano), Jeff Reitz (alto sax, clarinet, bass sax and flute), Jayson Collins (alto sax), Sue Orfield (tenor sax), and Jeff Walk (trumpet). Today CVJO is eighteen musicians strong. Its members' ages range from age 18 to 60+. Some are college students, others are teachers and business-owners and they all love their music.

This is their second Christmas season at The State Theater and this year they changed things up and added AdrianKlenz as their Master Of Ceremonies. Barry Hitt (who, by the way, is so goofy he's hip) agreed that they needed a front man so he could concentrate on just being the musical director. I don't know how the show felt without an official Master Of Ceremonies, but having Adrian up there gave Swinging Into The Holidays a variety show-feel. Sort of like the holiday TV specials I used to watch as a child.

There were 13 musicians on stage. Front and center-right was a three-tiered horn section. On the top, back row were 5 trumpets: Jeff Walk; Sean Hanson; Kris Bergh; and Rich Morgan of Morgan Music. 5 trombones graced the middle tier: Tom Carlson; Doug Shoemaker; Bill Halgren; and Eric Olson. The saxophones were on the ground floor: Max Palzewicz; Sue Orfield; Theresa Soules; Jay Collins; and Jeff Reitz, "instrument guy" at Schmitt Music. Back and to the right of the horns was Geoff Peterson on drums and slightly in front of the drums, next to the horns was Emily Watkins on guitar. On the other side of the drum kit was Eric Thompson with his upright bass and bookending the ensemble was Josh Gallagher on the grand piano.

Most of the musicians sported some kind of holiday attire. Some wore Santa hats and others wore “ugly sweaters,” bow ties and Christmas ties. Some of the horns had red or green muters, and one of the trombones (I think it was Doug Shoemaker's) was green and was decorated with a rim of tinsel. Adrian was front and to the left and he also sang, accompanied in some of the songs by Cathy Reitz.

Adrian was handsome in black suit coat and a red tie and he kicked off the show with “Sleigh Ride.” The next song was “Mr Grinch” and in the middle of the song Jeff Reitz put down his horn, grabbed his bag and left the stage, all Grinch-like. After the piano solo he reentered wearing a bright red hunting cap and blowing his bass sax. If you've never seen a bass sax believe me when I tell you that this is one big-ass horn. Jeff was very Grinchy and this song set a happy, playful mood that persisted through the show. And then there was Barry Hitt.

Barry was introduced after “Grinch” and he was filled with the Miles-Davis-Christmas Spirit. He entered in red pants, a Santa hat, a tinsel-boa necklace and a psychedelic green and red dashiki with a big snow-flake-like design on the back. As the director, he had his back to the audience for most of the performance—dashiki snow-flake prominently displayed—and he kept time with a cute little butt-swing. He was a total dork and totally cool.

The next song was “O Holy Night” and Jeff Walk wailed big-time on his trumpet. Adrian was joined on stage by Cathy Rietz (she's married to The Grinch) and they did a fun, hammy version of “Baby It's Cold Outside.” Cathy has a great voice and obviously loves singing. The trombones took the lead on “God Rest Ye Merry Trombones” and Adrian sang “The Christmas Song” followed by Andrew Neesley's version of “Winter Wonderland” which featured a solo by what looked to be the youngest member on trumpet. He nailed it. The first set ended with a lovely rendition of “Adeste Fidelis” and featured some rocking improv solos by Sue Orfield and Jeff Reitz on saxes and Josh Gallagher on piano. All the other musicians seemed to enjoy listening to the solos as much as the audience.

Cathy kicked off the second half of the show, singing a big-band-jazzy-style medley of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Her energy and joy revived us after the intermission. Tom Carlson brought his trombone front and center and led us through “Christmas Time Is Here.” This was followed by Auld Lang Syne, which started out traditionally then bumped up to a swinging song. Cathy returned to the stage and sang “I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and Eric Olson's bass trombone blew us away with a fun, playful version of “Jingle Bells.” The show started its wind-down with Adrian singing a soulful version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

The last song was an instrumental, “Yo! Tannenbaum,” (punctuation added by yours truly) which started slow, all wobbly horns, then snapped into a jazzy, raucous, fun finale. One of the things I liked about this show, these musicians, was the combination of professionalism and comfort. They were laid-back, relaxed, having fun doing the thing they like to do best. I'd never seen a jazz orchestra in action and last night blew up my preconceptions of a removed and stuffy event for cultural snobs. I'm sold.

The State Theater seats 1,098. 152 people showed up for this year's show, down from 160 last year—which is understandable considering the North Pole-like weather we're having. But here's the thing: This was a great show and it deserved a bigger audience. This brings me back to my oft-repeated plaint that we just don't get the hidden wealth of the Chippewa Valley. In an era of “fiscal responsibility” that chips away funding for the arts, we have passionate, talented musicians whose only desire is to be heard and appreciated. The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra's next gig is February 15th at The State Theater and it will feature Luis Bonilla, Charles Mingus' lead trombone player, along with a variety of high school students. How cool is that? If I had a honey, I'd demand he take me to this for Valentine's Day and I'll probably go anyway, honey or not. You should too. 

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Again,  Freaks and Geeks' burgeoning Music Wiki was helpful with this blog.

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