Well, the place was buzzing, the large crowd at Foundry 616 on Saturday 23 March eager to hear the very first performance of newly-formed Sydney-based big band, the Melaleuca Jazz Orchestra. And who doesn’t love a big band? It’s a valid question because as I looked around, there was a wide demographic – young and old – waiting to listen to some classic tunes made famous by the incomparable Ella Fitgerald. And we weren’t disappointed.

Bassist and bandleader Elsen Price, who believes it’s critical to keep this wonderful music alive and kicking, has brought together some of Sydney’s finest musicians for this project, so kudos to him and co-directors, saxophonist James Ryan and vocalist Alex Siegers.

The evening began with ‘How High the Moon’, featuring Siegers and the MJO’s exceptional rhythm section. It was a great introduction to the night, Siegers singing and scatting the melody, and inserting the odd musical quote here and there. ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ followed, and for me, it was one of the best songs of the evening – the vocals were just right, the piano improvisations sensitive, and the rapport between the musicians obvious. ‘St Louis Blues’, with its enjoyable tempo changes, had the crowd roaring. And we were only three songs in.
The rest of the band then came together, and what a real treat it was to hear these musicians do their thing. Classic arrangements of classic songs, from ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (from Fitzgerald’s time with the Chick Webb Orchestra), with its engaging call-and-response between vocalist and orchestra; to ‘’Deed I Do’, playing, I believe, the Count Basie arrangement. What a tight unit this band is. Such a pleasure to listen to. The band was on fire playing ‘I’m Feeling Good’: the rich sounds of the trombones and saxophones were complemented by the soaring high notes of the trumpets, and Alex Siegers’ vocal stylings.

Among the other numbers were the lovely Billy Strayhorn ballad ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’, Fats Waller’s ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, and more great Basie tunes, such as ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues)’, ‘Corner Pocket’ and ‘Indian Summer’. Basie’s ‘Tall Cotton’ was another standout piece with a marvellous solo from young trombonist Rhys Moore, another from trumpeter Ralph Pyl. ‘This Bass was Made for Walking’, the great Thad Jones piece, featured Elsen Price, and a swinging guitar solo from Michael Coggins. James Ryan dazzled on the flute in the Dizzy Gillespie tune ‘Tin Tin Deo’. Truth be told, every solo of the evening was terrific.

The Melaleuca Jazz Orchestra presented a well-thought-through selection of numbers, and for a couple of hours, the audience was transported back to the halcyon days of the big band era. It’s clear this music is loved by many people, so I do hope we’ll be seeing more of this ensemble of outstanding musicians.

The musicians: Alex Siegers (vocals); Ralph Pyl, Ray Cassar and Flynn Poppleton (trumpets); Tessie Overmyer, Stuart Vandegraaff, James Ryan and Tom Spencer (saxes); Lee Orszaczky, Rhys Moore and Molly James (trombones); Michael Coggins (guitar), Casey Golden (piano), Elsen Price (bass) and Nic Cecire (drums).

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