2009-02-19 / Dining & Entertainment

Concert review

Elmer Ramsey leads Valentine's Day tribute to the big bands
By Cary Ginell soundthink@aol.com

The sounds of the big band era wafted through the Samuelson Chapel at Cal Lutheran University Saturday night in an entertaining program of swing standards from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Led by Thousand Oaks icon Elmer Ramsey, the group of mostly homegrown musicians played nearly two dozen familiar standards from the big band era.

Ramsey, a formidable trumpet player in his day, showed he still has plenty of chops left as he fronted the 16-piece band in such hits as "Moonlight Serenade" and (appropriately) "My Funny Valentine." Ramsey is well-suited for his role; he got his start playing trumpet professionally at age 14 and later toured the West Coast with such stars as Mel Tormé, Joni James and Kay Starr.

The so-called big band era is recognized as beginning during a successful appearance by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra at Los Angeles' Palomar Ballroom in August 1935 and lasting until the onset of rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s. During that time, musician-bandleaders like Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Harry James became the media superstars of their time, their every moves tracked by youngsters and fan magazines alike. Most of the star vocalists of the '40s, '50s and '60s, including Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Perry Como, got their start singing in big bands. In keeping with this tradition, Elmer Ramsey made sure to feature the requisite "girl singer and boy singer" in the concert, in this case, Nancy Osborne and Chris Feeney.

Nancy Osborne continues the legacy of popular jazz and cabaret entertainers like Rosemary Clooney and Susannah McCorkle with her pleasing voice and natural swing instincts. Her solos on such songs as "Moonglow" and "I'll Be Seeing You" conjured memories of ballrooms filled with hundreds of dancing couples. Osborne has not only sung with big bands, she is also a seasoned actress, having performed in touring Broadway productions, as well as on television and at Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe Revue.

Tenor Chris Feeney is known to Conejo Valley audiences for his regular appearances with Elmer Ramsey in his annual New Year's Eve "Night in Vienna" concerts. Feeney's talent, however, is geared toward arias from popular operas rather than songs from the big band era, as his performance regrettably proved Saturday night. Although he possesses a powerful voice, Feeney is out of his element with this material, which demands a more intimate approach, especially on romantic ballads like Lerner and Loewe's "Almost Like Being in Love" from "Brigadoon." On his first number, the '50s movie theme "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," Feeney tried using an operatic approach to ill effect, while on "I've Got You Under My Skin," he forgot some of the lyrics and was particularly clumsy in navigating the swinging Nelson Riddle arrangement, a Frank Sinatra hallmark.

The band's performance was highlighted by the exquisite playing of clarinetist Dan Geeting, who grew up listening to the big band sounds of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among others. A CLU professor of music and leader of the university orchestra and wind ensemble, Geeting got to know Shaw during his last years as a resident of Newbury Park. In Saturday's concert, Geeting played sleek renditions of Shaw's solos from his iconic recordings of "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust," as well as leading the band in Goodman's theme song, "Let's Dance." Other standouts in the band included trumpeter Bill Barrett, who soloed on Harry James' hit "I've Heard That Song Before," and drummer Adam Wells, who led the way on the aptly titled "Cute," a Count Basie favorite written by the late Neal Hefti.

Unfortunately, the Samuelson Chapel's cavernous expanse resulted in the band's crisp performance sounding particularly muddy; it is not the ideal facility for this kind of music. Other than this, the only other feature that detracted from a generally satisfying evening was the absence of a dance floor. After all, that's what this music was made for, wasn't it?

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