Review: Butler School of Music Opera Theatre and Jazz Ensemble 

Music of the Greatest Generation
Butler University Jordan College of Arts/School of Music Opera Theatre and Jazz Ensemble
Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts, Nov. 19-20
4 stars

Fuse opera theatre with jazz ensemble and you get a delightful infusion of the Great American Songbook and big band standards in a classic radio format, complete with a jaunty script (by Carissa Riesdesel) delivered with aplomb by “WBTR host” D. Paul Thomas. The packed audience at Schrott, initially not sure what to expect, immediately warmed to the opening trumpet, trombone, saxophone introduction to Ellington and Mills’ "It Don’t Mean a Thing" and came alive with the entrance of a vocalist in vintage red polkadot sun dress, seamed hose, hairdo and makeup delivering 1930s swing.

The band, perfectly captured Benny Carter’s smooth and mellow "The Blues in My Heart" and matched Basie’s laid back sound with Billy Byers’ "Count Me In." A vocalist lustily lured us into The Gershwins’ "Things Are Looking Up" while Cole Porter’s "Don’t Fence Me In" got a velvet interpretation with two trios providing stereo harmony. Though the song originated with Tony Bennett, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s pop standard "The Best is Yet to Come" showcased Sinatra with an attitude.

Act Two opened with jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’ "Roll ‘Em" showing the band’s ease with bop, swing and stride from a solo piano entry into a look-alike Benny Goodman grooving the clarinet solos. Two female trios gave a different soulful feel to the 1927 Whiting/Donaldson "My Blue Heaven," usually a crooner’s vehicle, while another set of two female trios brought upbeat tempo to Porter’s "Begin the Beguine" and the Mercer/Arkin jaunty "Accentuate the Positive" presented a Ladies Ensemble of ten with a male soloist. Dave Wolpe’s big band arrangement, "Salute to the Armed Forces," almost made the backdrop flag ripple. The program closed with a full ensemble rendition of Lerner and Lane’s On a Clear Day.

“My parents were part of this big swing band generation,” said Thomas Studebaker, Butler Opera Theatre director. “I grew up with this music. This is the program I always wanted to do to honor them and when I mentioned it to Matt Pivec [Jazz Ensemble director] it happened.” The 12-member Opera Theatre created their own authentic look and moved with ease into the body language and vocal style of the 1920s-60s and the 18-member band found a happy niche working with vocalists.

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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