By MARIE GILBERT
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One minute, a reed section whispers impossibly rich, velvety tones. The next, the room erupts with the wicked, raucous sounds of drums.
There are occasional piano solos, crisp, clean vocals and a dance floor filled with electrifying enthusiasm. It’s a celebration of music, shiny and spectacular, that was America’s soul mate in the 1940s.
In an era of industrial and military power, big bands reigned supreme and made legends of such names as Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
They hit the stage and came out swinging.
Today, in an age of computer-generated music, it might seem like lunacy to imagine that an 18-member band, functioning like a well-oiled machine, could make a go of it.
But look no further than Shades of Blue Orchestra to understand why the music plays on.
“It’s energetic, gets the foot tapping and is the basis for some great sounds,” said Gary Alker, the band’s founder, manager and trumpet player.
Those interested in taking a trip down Memory Lane will be able to do so when Shades of Blue Orchestra opens the Pen Mar Park concert series from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 27.
“This will be our first time at Pen Mar and we’re excited about the opportunity to open the season there,” Alker said. “We’ve heard great things about the summer concert series and the great crowds that gather.”
Based in Baltimore, the orchestra was formed in 1976 by Alker who, as a high school and college musician, had little opportunity to perform in “what the education world calls a stage band,” he said.
So, he borrowed some music charts, called up musician friends and friends of friends and began to fill the chairs.
“Within four months, we were rehearsing regularly and playing our first gigs,” he said.
Thirty-six years later, Shades of Blue Orchestra is still going strong.
The group primarily plays throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, Alker said, and consists of 18 instrumentalists — five saxes, five trumpets, four trombones, guitar, piano, bass and drums. There are also a male and female vocalist, plus a conductor and two sound engineers.
Band members come from Baltimore, Annapolis, Mt. Airy, Md., Glen Rock, Pa., and as far north as Lebanon, Pa. In addition to the big band sound, Alker said the orchestra plays a variety of music from the Great American Songbook of the 1950s and ’60s.
“When adapted to the big band ensemble, it’s all very well received,” he noted. “In particular, signature songs of well-known vocalists are often the stand outs — vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, Bobby Darrin and, more recently, Michael Bublé.”
Alker said the orchestra has its own outstanding vocalists — Tony Liberto and Tammy Temple.
“Tony sounds uncannily like Frank Sinatra — and it’s not contrived or forced. That’s who he sounds like,” Alker noted. “Tammy is a wonderful variety vocalist, able to recreate the stylings of various well-known female singers.”
Temple’s singing evokes entertainers such as Natalie Cole, Eta James, Peggy Lee and Linda Ronstadt, he said.
While the band offers a wide range of music, the most requested genre, Alker said, is big band.
And the reason is simple.
“The primary, but not the only, genre of big band is swing,” he explained. “Swing is happy music. The messages are nostalgic, fun and romantic. Swing came about and evolved during times when folks needed a break from the ordeals of the day and the intense current events, such as economic downturns and war. For many, the music delivered by a big band serves the same purpose today. A quote from the liner notes of our first CD, ‘Dreamsville,’ comes to mind. ‘The big band palette has a vast array of vibrant, pastel, warm, cool, intense and relaxed colors to create some incredible dreams.’”
Alker said Shades of Blue Orchestra continues to add new selections to their repertoire.
“We also enjoy playing some of the great Latin tunes and are always looking for Latin arrangements that showcase the big band sound,” he said. “And, recently, at the request of a client, we produced and performed a Rat Pack-themed show — complete with Frank, Dean, Sammy and Marilyn Monroe. It was a lot of fun, well-done and well-received.”
In addition to public performances, Alker said the orchestra performs at wedding receptions and other special events, often playing to an audience that includes a generation not familiar with the big band sound.
“We played a wedding reception a few years back where a large number of guests were teens and twenty-somethings,” Alker noted. “It was humorous and rewarding at the same time. They would walk toward the bandstand with their mouths agape. ‘This is amazing,’ they would say. And they would dance.”
It was also the first time many of the young people had experienced a live band at a wedding reception, he added.
“It was a very different perspective for those of the iPod generation,” he said.
If you go ...
WHAT: Shades of Blue Orchestra, part of Pen Mar Park concert series
WHEN: 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 27
WHERE: Pen Mar Park, off Pen Mar High Rock Road, Cascade
CONTACT: Call 240-313-2700
MORE: For more information about Shades of Blue Orchestra and a sampling of its music, go to www.shades-of-blue.com
Pen Mar Park Summer Concert Series
The free concerts are from 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays:
May 27 — Shades of Blue Orchestra
June 3 — The Rocky Birely Combo
June 10 — The Headliners
June 17 — The Dave Winter Group
June 24 — Accordionist Cheryl Kataline
July 1 — Arrow Trio
July 8 — Back to Back
July 15 — Organist Jim Powers
July 22 — Spectrum
July 29 — Jay and the Jingos
Aug. 5 — The Andy Angel Quartet
Aug. 12 — Music by Just Us
Aug. 19 — The Steve Hayes Trio
Aug. 26 — Everybody’s Day: Program starts at noon; The Ray Birely Orchestra; jitterbug contest at 2:30 p.m.; waltz contest at 2:45 p.m.
Sept. 2 — The Holders
Sept. 9 — Fancy Brass
Sept. 16 — Variety
Sept. 23 — The Josh Tindall Combo
Sept. 30 — For Dancers Only Orchestra