Kudos to the Muncie Symphony Orchestra and its artistic director Bohuslav Rattay for taking on a project of the scope of Starry Night, a 13-song cycle of mostly star themed standards performed with a jazz quartet and singer Jackie Allen. It's the first time the 60-year-old regional orchestra has made a recording, and they did so with a batch of arrangements commissioned for the orchestra. The concert - billed as the Starry Night Gala and performed over two nights - was, according to the liner notes, the most lucrative fundraiser in the orchestra's history, so it was a success by that not unimportant measurement. By looking for songs with star themes or star in the name, the orchestra found a few more obscure tunes, including Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" and Jobim's "If You Never Come to Me," alongside classics like Weill's "Lost in the Stars" and Carmichael's "Stardust."
But the live recording of the concert is predictable and somewhat dull listening, reflecting a conservatism in approach that may have doomed the project from the beginning. "With strings" is a tricky phrase with which to saddle any jazz record. And the arrangers and orchestra didn't overcome stumbling blocks that can make a jazz album with strings difficult listening, including a lack of jazz sensibility on the part of the orchestra and a tendency towards making things syrupy and pretty on the part of the arranger.
With the exception of a couple more adventurous arrangements by Frank Proto - for a medley of star-themed tunes and that old chestnut "Stardust" - the orchestra wasn't given much more to do than add those syrupy, sometimes lugubrious strings, with improvisation and much of the rhythm left to the jazz quartet that performed with the orchestra. The jazz quartet is fine, their energy and flexibility a welcome respite from the heaviness of the orchestra, but I wish all these elements would have combined more effectively and beneficially.
Allen might have salvaged the recording with an outstanding performance, but she never really shines, giving capable readings that don't seem to find anything new in the standards, with a few unnecessary bars of scat in the interstices. Her voice is pleasantly throaty and digs deep into alto range on "Stardust," but it lacks a certain juice that one looks for in a jazz vocalist, whether that be a novel approach, emotional investment or technical brilliance.