Drummer Frank Capp stood at the microphone of the main ballroom of the Irvine Marriott hotel on Sunday and asked the essential question: Why does his Juggernaut big band play music from as far back as the late '30s, music that's so old?
Then he provided the answer, which he delivered by asking another question: "Why do orchestras play Beethoven? Because it's great music, classic music and it deserves to be heard."
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Renditions of tunes from jazz's past can fall flat if not given vital treatments in the present moment. Happily, that problem rarely occurs with Capp's big band. Whether fielding an orchestra of acknowledged stars like trumpeter Conte Candoli or saxman Pete Christlieb, or a crew of outstanding lesser-known players, as he did Sunday at the Marriott, the drummer's versions of such numbers as "Avenue C," "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and " 'Lil Darlin' " almost always brim with life.
Playing for a crowd of about 350, many of whom flocked to the dance floors on each side of the stage, Capp offered an array of tunes, most associated with Count Basie, who was being saluted; at least, that's what the promotional flyers for the bash read.
There were plenty of tunes originated by Basie. Saxophonist Frank Foster, who just left the helm of the currently touring Basie orchestra, was the author of the evergreen "Shiny Stockings," written in dedication to the women in the chorus line at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and a hit for the Count in the mid-'50s.
Foster also penned the wears-well arrangement to "Everyday I Have the Blues," which Joe Williams made famous and which Ernie Andrews regally shouted out to open his portion of the show during the Juggernaut's second set.
And there was the sumptuous and slow "Darlin'," penned by Neal Hefti for the 1958 Roulette album simply titled "Basie" but which everyone has referred to as the "Atomic Bomb album" because there was a picture of a mushroom cloud on the cover.
"Darlin'," which is also included on Capp's recent "In a Hefti Bag" album, was a spotlight for Carl Saunders, one of Southern California's most underrated trumpeters. A veteran of the big bands of Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, Saunders is a be-bopper who delivered peals of notes uttered softly in long, fluid chains, then accented his thoughts with bristling high notes that recalled Dizzy Gillespie.
"Moon River," the Mancini-Johnny Green charmer, was given a brief, medium-tempo run-through, just right for the dancers. This chart, written by Billy Byers for Basie, was typical of the great band's sound, where thick-toned, purring saxes played the endearing melody as well as many of the background figures, alternating on those with biting statements from the brass.
Capp, who gives his drums solid thumps during ensemble passages and who keeps a steady cymbal sizzle going during the solos, usually delivers lots of uptempo numbers, showcasing his tenor saxophonists. Sunday, he stuck mainly with speeds dancers could navigate, though there were a few exceptions: Bobby Ojeda's "Cat Nap" and Hefti's "I'm Shoutin' Again," where Jerry Pinter's thoughtful yet swinging tenor solo stood out.
In "Cat Nap," the melody was based on one note rhythmically bounced here and there, as if tenor giant Lester Young was soloing. The featured improvisation went to Steve Wilkerson, who played a gorgeous clarinet solo, built around lines comprised of be-bop twists and turns, sudden up-the-horn bursts and long, piecing cries.
The instrumentals were rounded out by ace vocals. The ever-buoyant Barbara Morrison dropped in three natty vocals during the first set, highlighted by the blues, "Someone Else Was Steppin' In," and Andrews garnered rousing ovations for his splendid versions of "Love Is Here to Stay," "Everyday" and "I'm Just a Lucky So and So," among several others.