Thursday, July 12, 2018

Swing Dance Music (and Dance) in Union Square

Fil Lorenz (third from right) and his Little Big Band (photograph by Linda Dembo)

Yesterday evening I made my first visit to the free Union Square Live concerts. The group performing was the Fil Lorenz Little Big Band, which amounts to a “chamber version” (one player per instrument) of the classic big bands that provided a major source of entertainment and music for dancing during the Thirties. Lorenz led the group from the alto saxophone chair, joined by Danny Brown on tenor saxophone. The “brass section” consisted entirely of Mike Olmos on trumpet and Paul Lennik on trombone. Rhythm was provided by Mike Hennings on drum kit, Larry Dunlap on keyboard, and Andrew Riggin on bass. Three of the selection in the first set featured vocalist Natalie Smith.

The band’s book reached back to swing classics associated with groups led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Harry James but advanced forward to the Ray Charles repertoire. Indeed, one of the earliest selections in the set was Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You;” but the band’s style came closer to memories of the Thirties than it did to Marty Patch’s arrangement for Charles. (Another nod to Charles came near the end of the set with Rudolph Toombs’ “One Mint Julep,” which Charles sang in a “real” big band arrangement by Quincy Jones.)

The real spirit of the Thirties came into full gear, however, at the end of the set with Harry James’ “James Session.” James himself could have been looking down from Heaven upon all of the inventive energy that Olmos brought to his solo trumpet work, not to mention the stratospheric heights of his pitch range toward the end of that solo. For that matter, Hennings had no trouble channeling Buddy Rich in the extended drum solo he took about midway through the piece.

To be fair, however, the band itself was only half the show. There was a generous space between the bandstand and the front row of the audience to serve as a dance floor. It did not take long for that space to fill up with about a dozen couples, all of whom were right at home with the swing dance moves for which those Thirties bands provided the music. There was also an impressive amount of partner-changing, which led me to ask one of the dancers if they were all part of some club. He smiled and said, “It look’s that way, doesn’t it? I would say about 60% of the people dancing know each other.”

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