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Meet the band: The Helios Jazz Orchestra

The 22-member Helios Jazz Orchestra — the resident ensemble at St. Petersburg College — features singer Kevin Mahagony among its many experienced players.

Jay Cridlin/tbt*

The 22-member Helios Jazz Orchestra — the resident ensemble at St. Petersburg College — features singer Kevin Mahagony among its many experienced players.

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. Bandleader and instructor David Manson has played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini.

The Helios Jazz Orchestra performs around Tampa Bay about twice a month, including at the Palladium Theater on July 12. Tbt* caught up with ensemble's leader, teacher and local jazz hero David Manson, to find out about his big band.

Why "helios?" Means sun, right?

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 do 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 geting Kevin Mahogany to perform with you?

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.

WMNF Jazz Jam

The Helios Jazz Orchestra performs with Impromptu, Kevin Mahogany, Porter Batiste Stoltz, Infinite Groove Orchestra, Trio Vibe and more starting at 4 p.m. Sunday at Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. $12 in advance, $15 day of show. (813) 971-0666.

Meet the band: The Helios Jazz Orchestra 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:27pm]
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