The Olney Big Band is a Maryland jazz orchestra which plays in many venues in the Maryland suburbs around Washington, D.C. We had an opportunity to see them on the lawn of the Potomac campus of the Washington Hebrew Congregation on Father’s Day of this year. They performed recreations of swing band classics, including Stan Kenton’s lush treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” with an extended klezmer segment, ideal for the venue.
…this talented ensemble…performs and renews the vital American art form of big band jazz
More recently, we caught up with the Olney Big Band at the “Festival of Lights,” a holiday festival with a variety of nightly shows at the Visitors Center of the LDS Temple in Kensington (and a multitude of dazzling, electric Christmas lights on the trees outside). This one-night performance included many holiday offerings presented in a jazzy style, including “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” featuring a vibrant saxophone solo by Bill Klein, and a Chris McDonald arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” which began with a soulful saxophone quintet and moved into a faster swing tempo. An unusual up-tempo rendition was also in store for “Greensleeves,” with unexpected trumpet and saxophone solos.
While the program focused on both secular and sacred Christmas favorites, there were also occasional, clever samples of traditional, non-seasonal big band arrangements, including the Gene Krupa-style drumming from “Sing, Sing, Sing” and a riff from Charlie Barnet’s “Skyliner.” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” recalling Michael Bublé’s version, was arranged with pastiches of Count Basie stylings, including a big brassy approach, the famous plink-plank piano manner of Count Basie, and drumming channeled from “April in Paris,” arguably the most famous Basie arrangement.
In “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag,” vocalist Cate Ginsberg’s bright rendition connected well with the audience as she sang this popular Christmas classic made famous by 50s chanteuse Kay Starr. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” featured a pleasingly dissonant moment, somewhat in the style of the Stan Kenton orchestra’s “Great Wall of Sound” to which the Olney aggregation often returns.
Non-holiday fare was also performed, notably “Little Jazz,” a recording trumpet legend Roy Eldridge shared with bandleader Artie Shaw. After Olney Big Band’s Ray Strucker paid a beautiful, extended tribute to the Eldridge trumpet style, the holidays again emerged as the perennial Christmas favorite “Jingle Bells” was sampled at the end of the song. Vocalist Matt Williams came in with his outgoing and fun personality that radiated throughout the auditorium as he jogged on and off stage. He wore a hat reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, wielded a retro-style microphone, and sang “On the Street Where You Live” from Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway classic “My Fair Lady.” He would later perform a warm duet with Cate Ginsberg on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” first introduced by Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Music from the soundtrack from a “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi was next, beginning with “Linus and Lucy” and transitioning to “O Tannenbaum” with the pianist sounding like Guaraldi. “Skating” and “Christmas Time is Here” were performed, the latter with a smooth saxophone solo by Mark Peterson taking on the melodic line. This suite effectively brought back memories for “Peanuts” fans who have watched this beloved Christmas special countless times.
Master of Ceremonies and leader of the band, Dave Cannon, introduced all of the pieces that night and played the trombone. When we asked Mr. Cannon about future performances, he replied: “There is nothing definite yet, but we usually play at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in February and Olney Days in May. We also play for Blake and Albert Einstein High School’s music department’s fund raisers.” Whatever the venue, we hope others will hear this talented ensemble as it performs and renews the vital American art form of big band jazz.
Running time: Approximately one hour without intermission.
The Olney Big Band performed at the Washington D.C. Temple (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Festival of Lights, 9900 Stoneybrook Drive, Kensington, MD 20895. The festival runs through January 2, 2023. Parking and performances are free, but performances require tickets here. It is open from dusk to 9 pm. The Bejing Opera will be performing on New Year’s Eve at 7:30 pm. For more information on upcoming performances by The Olney Big Band, click here.