Big Band Proves That Swing's Still the Thing

The Dick Braun Orchestra took an enthusiastic audience on a sentimental journey through the highlights of the Big Band era Monday night in the University of San Diego's Camino Theater.

Braun's group, one of the few working Big Bands in San Diego, ran through a repertoire ranging from Count Basie to Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa to Duke Ellington, Les Brown to Glenn Miller.

At times, the music was a little rough around the edges, as when the horn and rhythm sections momentarily lost track of each other in transitions. But the authentic Big Band spirit was there. For sheer nostalgia, fans of the original Big Bands won't find a better time. And for young jazz fans who have never experienced the vibrant, full sound of a live Big Band, this 16-piece one offers an educational opportunity.

Overall, Braun's musicians are a seasoned, talented crew. Many have extensive Big Band experience. Guitarist Milt Norman, for example, worked with Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and band leader Tony Pastor. On stage, Norman sat still in his chair, guitar cradled in his lap, no show of emotion on his face. Hardly the kind of guy you'd expect great things from.

But when his turn came to solo on "Every Day I Have the Blues," his fingers danced over the strings, turning out lines that spanned the history of jazz guitar, from Charlie Christian to Kenny Burrell.

Braun spent most of the evening on the soprano sax and clarinet, but he also played piano and sang in a voice that has more entertainment value than power. He is an excellent soloist on both wind instruments, although here he seemed to be holding back much of the time. When he did get close to the mike and cut loose, great things happened. His fluid clarinet lines were especially enticing, taking you back to strong melodies and inventive solos produced by such predecessors as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.

Opening with "Let's Dance," a favorite of Goodman's band, Braun's orchestra worked its way through more than a dozen numbers, including "Don't Be That Way," "Moten Swing," "Tangerine," "The Boogie Blues," "A Prelude to a Kiss" and Braun's own "San Diego."

Singer Joni Wilson, dressed in an elegant 1930s gown and veiled hat, added salty vocals to "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Every Day I Have the Blues" and others.

The band was at its best on medium tempo tunes that swung steadily forward. Saxes anchored the middle with tight, sensuous lines, while trumpets or Braun's clarinet soared above.

There was plenty of room for improvisations, and these ranged from dull and lazily executed to polished and energetic. Guitarist Norman, Braun and trumpeter Les Kepics are among the orchestra's best soloists.

The audience, including several fans who probably heard Big Band music in its prime, loved the performance. By the end, when the group played "Moonlight Serenade," one couple was even swing dancing in the lobby.

The group also includes top local vocalist Cath Eckert, bassist Chris Conner, guitarist Norman and drummer Phil Claypool.

Braun's Big Band plays mostly private parties and conventions. But on Sunday, Aug. 5, it will appear for an afternoon concert at 4:30 in Friendship Park in Chula Vista, behind the main library at 4th Avenue and F Street.

During a five-week engagement that began Tuesday night in the Tournament of Champions Lounge at the La Costa Resort Hotel in Carlsbad, one of Braun's smaller groups, a quintet, is mixing classic Big Band-era material with contemporary tunes and assorted jazz standards.

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