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Last week brought the opening of Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club, the new venue in the old Bethesda Theatre. Among the 500-seat venue’s already varied bookings is its new resident Big Band, the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Orchestra, founded by pianist Larry Brown, the club’s entertainment director, and led by tenor saxophonist and former Airmen of Note leader Peter BarenBregge. They made their premiere at the club last night.
It seems almost unfair to review the BBJO on their first gig: They’re clearly a bit of a work in progress. That’s not because of the musicians, mind you. Culled from members of D.C.’s various military bands, the ensemble is spit-and-polish, its soloists (including such local luminaries as guitarist Shawn Purcell and saxophonists Vince Norman and Tedd Baker) top notch. The sound was also great, impressive design and amplification in an acoustically excellent room. Brown and BarenBregge have the makings of a juggernaut on their hands.
But the band is still in search of itself. In their first set Monday night, they were trying on identities like an insecure teenager. They played standards like “Love for Sale” and “Sophisticated Lady” with the slick professionalism of a big band for hire, then went a bit quirky on “And the Beat Goes On,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and Norman’s light-Latin original “El Otoño.” When singer Delores King Williams (U.S. Army Band, Capitol Steps) took the stage for three tunes, the band shifted into a Vegas showband mode.
This veered close to schmaltz; Williams is a charismatic performer, but her delivery of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was just an edge too brazen. The introspective ballad “When I Fall in Love” fared worse. It’s an intimate song, here sung in the least intimate setting imaginable: For one thing, she was working with a loud, 17-piece band that rose in swells behind her. For another, Williams persistently played to the size of the room, not the size of the crowd (though there are 300 dinner seats and 200 stadium “performance” seats, I counted 35 spectators for the set), so a small gathering got the packed-house treatment. But Williams sounded rather better on “Night and Day,” a sassier tune that lends itself to a large personality.
But the band also got to be edgy, even downright hip. “Hard Knock Music,” another Norman original, had a funky rhythm pattern and more than a few R&B licks—-one bore a more-than-passing resemblance to the main horn riff in Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” Their take on Pat Metheny‘s tune “Song for Bilbao” kicked up its samba foundation to a neck-twisting groove, and featured Purcell with a rough, rockish guitar solo.
Is this mix a bad thing? Not at all. It’s inevitable and probably important: A new band in a new venue brings a new audience, and they’ve got to figure out by trial-and-error what works for all three of those factors. But audiences should know going in that the set is likely to be schizophrenic, at least for a little while. In any case, though, the BBJO sound great. Once they figure out who they are, they’ll be even better.