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Helios Jazz Orchestra cooks the books at SPC



Helios Jazz Orchestra Rita Wilson

(This is the fifth entry in Soundcheck's summer concert series, The 50-50 Club. For previous entries, click here.)

So I wanted to see some interesting music at a nontraditional venue. That's a big thing these days, right?

Bands are playing every week at local Hot Topic stores. The Tampa Bay Rays are inexplicably the hottest concert promoters in town. The music blog La Blogotheque has a video series devoted to artists performing in unconventional spaces (i.e., Arcade Fire in an elevator, or Grizzly Bear in a bathtub).

The Helios Jazz Orchestra, a 22-piece big band, playing in the stacks of the West St. Petersburg Public Library at St. Petersburg College, wasn't quite that crazy. But it was still pretty cool.

The HJO is no motley crew of community-orchestra castoffs. It's a collection of serious jazz veterans who gig nightly around Tampa Bay and have played with some of the biggest names in American music.

It started last fall, when director David Manson, who leads the Brazilian samba outfit O Som Do Jazz and has played with local Zappa tribute icons Bogus Pomp, decided to build a big band for the first time in two decades.

"I thought I'd get kind of a community band, which couldn't really play difficult songs," said Manson, a music professor at SPC.

Turns out a number of top performers were interested. 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 and Ethel Merman. Manson himself has played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini.*

With this group, I can play almost anything I want," Manson said. "A lot of big bands have one or two guys who can solo; in this band, there are like 10 people."

And so it was Tuesday night. Counting guest vocalists Rita Wilson and Michael Cerone, 11 members had featured solos during the hourlong set.

You might think a free jazz concert at a library would draw mostly a crowd of elderly retirees. You would be right. But I also saw a handful of kids and young faces in the crowd of 100-plus, including what looked like a couple of actual, real-life, young-people dates.

And there were, of course, SPC students left and right, no doubt cramming for final exams, many of them wearing headphones.**

Up on the second level, next to the European history section and across from the free punch and pastries provided by the library, the HJO swung their way through 10 songs -- a few standards (Witchcraft, I've Got You Under My Skin), some deeper cuts, and even one original composition, Vickrey's Dark Samba.

The brass blared around the stacks, mocking the library's meek "No cell phones" signs, soaring spectacularly on Sammy Fain's Alice in Wonderland. The big sound carried throughout the library, but not so much that it was overbearing. You could still find a nook and read in relative peace, had you been so inclined.

Between songs, Manson chatted with the crowd, let band members promote upcoming solo gigs, and talked about SPC's growing Music Industry/Recording Arts program, whose students will help record the Helios Jazz Orchestra's debut CD in May.

You wouldn't know from watching the Helios Jazz Orchestra -- whose members range in age from 20-year-old drummer Preston Beebe to 80-year-old bassist Sonny Annis -- that this was only their eighth or ninth gig. They certainly appear be having fun -- of course, they'd have to be, in order to play in a big band with so many members.

"It doesn't pay that much," Manson said. "There's no way to pay 22 people what they really should get. Anybody out there should be making a minimum of $100 to play; they're doing well if they're making $40 apiece."

If you missed them Tuesday, the HJO will play another free concert at 7 p.m. April 30 at the SPC Music Center, 6605 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Call (727) 822-3590 for details.

And if you like your live music a little on the nontraditional side, they'll probably be back in the library at some point, too.

Next up in The 50-50 Club: Fleetwood Mac, Wednesday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

* Other interesting factoids about the Helios Jazz Orchestra: Andy Reese plays trumpet calls at Tampa Bay Downs, and bassist Sonny Annis was for 21 years the exclusive bassist for Tupperware conventions.

** This begs the question: Did these students find jazz music distracting? If so, what were they listening to? Acid rock? Funky breaks? Grime? I mean, what's so bad about studying to big-band music? Discuss.

Helios Jazz Orchestra

[Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 12:38am]


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