Is This Jazz? A Night Of Gershwin

On Thursday, February 22, the Veterans Memorial Auditorium was host to a rousing performance by The Gershwin Big Band, an ensemble dedicated entirely to the music of the late, great American composer George Gershwin. This well-attended event was presented as part of FirstWorks’ Artistic Icons Series and gave a captivated audience a glimpse at some of the most well-known and loved repertoire in the American Song Book. Being a lover of jazz and of the breadth of Gershwin’s music, I was naturally intrigued by what this night would hold.

I’d quickly like to reiterate the opening sentiments from FirstWorks’ executive artistic director Kathleen Pletcher, Providence mayor Jorge Elorza, and two students who benefit from programs run by FW who all spoke before the show began about the importance of not only this organization and the work they’re doing, but also of the arts as connecting the community. The incredible work this organization does for the city of Providence should not be understated, and I would implore you to go to to see all they have planned and to lend support.

Gershwin_Block4Once the opening festivities — which included spectacular performances by the RI Philharmonic Music School’s Jazz Sextet and Providence Swings — concluded, the band came out with a bang playing a hot swinging version of “I Got Rhythm,” one of Gershwin’s most well-known and important songs in the jazz lexicon. Next, lead singer and band leader Michael Andrew took the stage to formally welcome the crowd and to kick off the evening’s largely vocal repertoire. After a couple tunes and some chuckle-inducing one-liners, Andrew brought up Michelle Amato to sing a couple solo numbers before returning to the stage to trade off musical numbers and for a few well-done duets between the two singers. In the set list were a mix of familiar favorites such as “Summertime” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” unknown gems like “Little Jazz Bird” and “Slap That Bass,” and even a rendition of Gershwin’s famous orchestral work “Rhapsody In Blue,” all of which were arranged by band members specifically for this ensemble. The band was hot, the crowd was loving it and there was an atmosphere of joy that filled the concert hall that evening as the horns wailed out from their seats and the rhythm section kept a tight pocket for Andrew and Amato to dance over. Overall, it was a grand performance of masterworks from one of our nation’s finest composers.

Being that this column is a means to report and comment on the jazz culture in Rhode Island, I would like to levy one small criticism about the night. While I did enjoy much of the music and the performances of all those involved, at the same time it all felt a little too safe. There was a good energy in the band and all the solos where very good, but it seemed a bit too polished and exact in a way that the best jazz often tends not to be, which is not to say that the best jazz is sloppy, but that there’s a dynamism and electricity inherent in ripping jazz that didn’t seem to be there. To use crooners as an example, I think of it like Dean Martin vs Frank Sinatra. People like Dino — hell, I love his stuff, too — he sits back in the pocket and delivers a good performance with all the notes on point; it’s nice and comfortable. But when you listen to Frank, he’s in your face, putting fire into each note, and on the ballads he’s on the edge of sobbing into the microphone. It’s bombastic and wavering on unhinged at times, but it’s undeniably electric.

However, art should be judged on the merits by which it presents itself and in that way, the band did exactly what it came to do and entertained the people who were looking for an evening such as the one they got to see. The Gershwin Big Band presented an expertly executed array of exquisite music, and it was a pleasure to hear.

Happening Around Town:

The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra; first Monday monthly @ The Met (Pawtucket)

Is This Jazz?; first Friday bimonthly @ AS220 (Providence)

Allary At Arias; Sundays @ Arias Lounge (Providence)

Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)

Jazz JamTuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)

Groove E TuesdayTuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)

Parlour Jazz Jam; third Sunday monthly @ The Parlour (Providence)

Jeff Platz Quartet’s Modern Sound Series; last Sunday monthly @ Tea In Sahara (Providence)

Leland Baker Quartet; Wednesdays @ Acacia Club (Providence)

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Ben Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at or on Twitter @ahueofshaw.

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