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Artist of the day: Helios Jazz Orchestra


Since Ybor’s Jazz Cellar closed 10 years ago, the Tampa Bay jazz scene lost its anchor, and music lovers have been scurrying to find an authentic jazz experience.

Lucky for us, the folks at WMNF-88.5 FM and Skipper’s Smokehouse have gone into all the nooks and crannies of Tampa Bay, and are handing over the goods on Sunday at its first annual jazz jam. Performing will be the Infinite Groove Orchestra, PBS, Guisando Caliente, Impromptu and Trio Vibe.

The cherry on this jazz sundae will be headliner and 22-member-strong Helios Jazz Orchestra, featuring vocalist Kevin Mahagony.

Members of the resident ensemble at St. Petersburg College have logged some impressive gigs. Keyboardist Tommy Zyoncheck has played with Bruce Springsteen and toured with Blue Oyster Cult. Saxophonist Austin Vickrey recorded with Bootsy Collins. Trombonist Carl Brueitt backed up Ella Fitzgerald.

The Helios Jazz Orchestra performs around Tampa Bay about twice a month, including at the Palladium Theater on July 12. (Click here for a review of their performance at SPC in April.)

On Sunday, you can catch them at the WMNF Jazz Jam, which starts at 4 p.m. at Skipper's Smokehouse. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 day of show.

Julie Garisto caught up with ensemble’s leader, teacher and local jazz hero David Manson, who has played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, to find out about his big band.

Why ‚Äúhelios?‚Äù  Means sun, right? What‚Äôs the story behind that?

Yes, Helios is the sun in Greek. The elements seem to define us here in Florida. We have the water and the sun. The band was formed at the end of last summer. As you know, the sun dominates every thought when you are outdoors, and the band radiates a lot of energy.

So, how does SPC’s super-duper jazz ensemble form each year?

The members enroll during the fall and spring semesters. The group is much stronger than I initially anticipated. The band members are all working musicians who have a love of good big band music. Most of the band members are also great soloists, and that is rare.

What are some of the recurrent motifs in the compositions?

I try to keep the band repertoire challenging to its members and we strive for perfection. ... I push them to be better and they think that I’m the mad professor. We perform a variety of genres including Latin, swing, bebop, ballads and even smart pop arrangements. We want to be a modern big band rather than a society band.

What are some popular standards and artists you play?

Our charts include Gershwin’s They Can’t Take Away From Me, Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder, several Count Basie Orchestra compositions, originals by band members, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, Don’t Know Why recorded by Norah Jones and many more. We have two wonderful singers, Rita Wilson and Michael Cerone, and guest artists from time to time.

How did you go about getting Kevin Mahogany to perform with you, and why did you seek him out?

Kevin lives in Miami now. We’ve been corresponding about a jazz festival in February and this one became available on very short notice. He is one of my favorite singers. He can scat (and) sing ballads, uptempo and blues very well.

Tell us about your oldest and youngest members.

Our youngest member is drummer Preston Beebe. He attends USF as a composition major and is comfortable in all kinds of music ranging from hip hop to rock to jazz and new classical. Our eldest member is Sonny Annis, who plays electric bass. He also composes and has backed great musicians over the years, including Mel Torme. Good music isn’t about age, wardrobe or even culture. What we play reaches people of all ages and backgrounds.

-- Julie Garisto, tbt*. Photo by Jay Cridlin, tbt*.

[Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 7:00am]


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