Not many jazz fans know the name of Rob Pronk. But the reputation of the composer, arranger and conductor of the Dutch Metropole Orchestra is legendary among a host of artists who travel to the Netherlands to work with him. And for good reason.
Pronk made his first American appearance Saturday at the first annual KLON Jazz Festival (which the station broadcast live), held in conjunction with "A Taste of Orange County" on the green at the AT&T; Tower. Conducting a 51-piece orchestra whose size and instrumentation mirrored his European ensemble, Pronk welcomed to the stage a parade of top-drawer jazz soloists, many of whom have traveled overseas to appear and record with him. But the real stars of the three-hour concert were his scintillating arrangements.
This was not just another jazz-with-strings session. Each piece utilized a full array of tonal colors and rhythmic devices, turning the program of mostly familiar standards into fresh, invigorating presentations that framed each soloist to advantage. Gliding string passages, sometimes led by the violins, sometimes by cello and viola, were underlined by punchy brass. Flutes and a single, tinkling note from the xylophone inserted a touch of delicacy into full-blown horn forays. Backing sometimes came from all 51 pieces, sometimes from just piano, bass and drums. Rhythms from different parts of the orchestra would work at ticklish cross-purposes before blending into a seamless whole.
To put it another way, tunes such as "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" or "The Song Is You" never sounded so rich or so varied.
The evening's first soloist, Gary Foster, working with Pronk for the first time, was one of its best. Foster, on flute, whirled enticingly across a sultry string passage on Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count." Switching to alto sax, he scooted through "The Song Is You" while the orchestra repeatedly kicked up the tune's key a half-step at a time. Though the brass seemed to stumble during the arrangement's involved climax, it took little away from the piece as a whole.
Trumpeter Chuck Findley acquitted himself well during an up-tempo "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," squeezing out bursts of notes with a squeaky-clean tone. Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco brought an insistent swing to "Just Friends," while trombonist Carl Fontana, making a rare Southern California appearance, was nimble and assertive on a trio of tunes.
Vocalist Diane Schuur, who has recorded with Pronk and the Metropole, brought her lively, Ella Fitzgerald-like sound to "Sophisticated Lady," a piece highlighted by the angelic blend of her voice with, at first, a single violin and then a second, before the raunchy tones of a baritone sax brought the tune down to earth. Her strongest showing came on "You and the Night and the Music" on which she swung easily through several subtle rhythmic changes.
In from Austria for the event, expatriate Art Farmer closed the show with six numbers that found him on trumpet, rather than the fluegelhorn for which he's more recently known. He graced a straightforward arrangement of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" with warmth and intelligence before the tune closed with a floating, suspended-rhythmic statement from the strings. Farmer and the orchestra brought the show to a resounding close with a brass-happy arrangement of the "Flintstones" theme, the familiar lines chopped and diced before swelling back to a recognizable state.
Pronk's composing as well as arranging skills were showcased on his own "No More." The ballad opened with a dramatic string passage spiced with seductive oboe tones that highlighted the wise, considerate tenor work of Bill Perkins. The saxophonist brought a cool nostalgia to "The Summer Knows" (theme from "The Summer of '42"), its pensive intro working into a moderate swing tempo that Pronk's arrangement decorated with smooth horn breaks.
Though at times one might have wished for a better sound balance--the soft touches of the strings were often buried beneath the bluster of the brass--this was an evening truly worth remembering.
Hats off to the organizers for taking a chance on an important yet relatively unknown figure like Pronk and for bringing in such first-rate guests as Farmer, Schuur, DeFranco and Fontana. Credit should also be given to the crowd that braved a chilly breeze to hear such talent. Like them, we're anxious to see Pronk in front of an orchestra here again.