It is hardly a secret that some of the best large jazz aggregations in the world operate under the auspices of the United States military. One index to the excellence of the Air Force’s Airmen Of Note and the U.S. Army Blues Jazz Ensemble is the number of major civilian jazz soloists who have appeared with them and rave about their quality. I wrote in January about Buddy DeFranco’s encounter with the Army Blues. Our occasional correspondent John Birchard checks in with a report about another such high level collaboration.
Junior Mance will be 78 next week (Oct 10). Hard to believe it’s been over forty years since I last saw him in person.
Last night, Mance was the guest artist with the U-S Air Force jazz band, the Airmen of Note, as part of their Jazz Heritage Series at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The 17-piece Airmen kicked off the evening with a beautifully-written up-tempo original (most of the charts are by band members) featuring the trumpet of Master Sergeant Rich Sigler. The band vocalist, Tech Sergeant Paige Wroble, followed with a pair, “Let the Good Times Roll”, recalling the Ray Charles version, and “Corcovado”.
Junior joined the band and sounded somewhat tentative in the first piece, his own early composition “Jubilation”. But, as the concert progressed, so did his piano work. With “On Green Dolphin Street”, he began to sound like his old bluesy self. And by the time he called for Johnny Mandel’s “Emily”, which he described as his favorite tune these days, he showed why so many major artists have employed him over the years – Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, to name three. Accompanied only by the Airmen’s excellent bassist, Senior Master Sergeant Paul Henry, Junior’s “Emily” was by turns thoughtful and lovely.
Highlights of the evening for this listener followed: two charts by the late tenorman Eric Dixon, a slow blues and an up-tempo blues were separated by a stunning solo reading of Ellington’s “The Single Petal of a Rose”. When Junior finished “Rose”, there was silence followed by sustained applause.
The slow Dixon arrangement featured mostly Junior’s soulful piano, some nicely placed moans by a trio of trombones and a blistering guitar solo by Tech Sergeant Geoff Reecer, who – to that point in the evening – had played only a Freddie Greene rhythm role. When he turns up the amp, the mild-looking Reecer has a sound with a nice bite to it and he produced several choruses of heartfelt blues that had the audience yelling for more.
The evening ended with an up-tempo Dixon piece that brought to mind his longtime employer Count Basie, and Mance’s solo was a tribute to the Count’s style: spare, tasty and with a little bit of stride piano to finish the job. After long, warm applause for Junior and the band, Mance seemed almost overwhelmed by emotion. He told the audience, “This week has been one of the highlights of my career,” and went on to say, “These guys are not only great musicians, they’re great guys. I could use two or three more weeks like this.”
This year’s Jazz Heritage series ends November 3rd with the Airmen joined by guest artist Phil Woods – and these concerts are all free and open to the public. Not a bad way to start the holiday season.
Your Washington correspondent,
John is a veteran broadcast journalist employed by the Voice of America.