Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra and Ballet Ariel at the Arvada Center
A Review of The Birth of Rock and Roll
by Robin McNeil
Thursday evening, August 8, I attended a performance at the Arvada Center Amphitheater given by the Ballet Ariel with the music provided by the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra. This was a different ballet performance in that it depicted the history of pop music and dance from the 1930s through the 1950s. Though much of the dancing depicted pop dance steps of the period, there were ballet moves inserted into the historic steps, such as the Lindy, and dance steps drawn from movies generated and performed by Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The ballet, approximately forty-five minutes in length, was entitled The Birth of Rock and Roll, and was presented on the second half of the program. The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra was given the first half of the program to perform its own forty-five minute session of big band jazz hits.
The MJO opened with You don’t know what love is, which is a tune written by Gene de Paul, with lyrics written by Don Raye. It was originally used in the Abbott and Costello movie, Keep ‘em Flying. The featured musicians in this opener were Dan Johnson on trumpet, and Tyler Farr on alto sax. Many in the audience immediately recognized this popular tune, and it certainly set the mood for the rest of the evening. It was followed by a Peggy Lee song, I love being here with you, sung by Suzanne Morrison, who regularly appears with the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra.
I will quote from the MJO website:
“Suzanne is Artist-in-Residence at Colorado State University – directing Vocal Jazz, and a freelance vocalist and private voice instructor in the Denver area; featured with such groups as the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra, the Ultraphonic Jazz Orchestra, and The New Sound. She completed her Masters of Music in Vocal Performance and Choral Conducting at the University of Northern Colorado. Suzanne has appeared in concert as vocal soloist with jazz trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, and has been a featured vocalist with University of Northern Colorado’s Lab Band 1, Et Cetera, The Malone Tones, and other groups, such as D’Fusion and The Yellowstone Big Band. Suzanne has also been a featured guest jazz artist at the Yellowstone Jazz Festival.
”In addition to her jazz work, Suzanne has been active in opera, performing the role of ‘The Queen of the Night’ in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and has been a featured classical soloist in concerts and oratorios, as well as chorus master for several opera productions.”
Morrison was backed up by Kevin Buchanan on trombone. She certainly has the voice for big band work, and a natural ability with jazz style. It has been a long time since I have heard a big band jazz group (Stan Kenton used to spend six weeks every summer at Indiana University), but hearing Buchanan and Morrison was a real joy.
There followed many big band jazz arrangements which would be familiar to anyone who loves big band jazz: Singing in the Rain, with MJO co-founder Scott Handler on flugel horn and Tyler Farr on sax; Rainy Day, with Joel Siegel on sax and Carlos Chavez, trombone. These two gentlemen were absolutely outstanding, and, to my way of thinking, this was the outstanding set of the evening. Suzanne Morrison had another opportunity to display her talents and the well-known All right, OK, you win, from another Peggy Lee album. She was superb.
The MJO is a very good group, but it seemed to me that they were occasionally too loud, because from where I sat, they covered up a bit of the vocal solos, and parts of the instrumental solos. Nonetheless, they are an outstanding group
After rearranging the stage to make room for the dancers, Ballet Ariel presented The Birth of Rock and Roll. This ballet takes us on a journey from Swing through Blues through Rock, featuring Peter Strand and Kevin Burke as lead musicians in a dance band. Strand and Burke performed the roles of bandleaders, complete with life’s tribulations and fights. Costumes were appropriate for each period, and certainly added to the atmosphere of each period. However, there were occasions when it seemed a little thorny to have ballet moves inserted into the pop culture dance steps. Certainly much of the staging reminded me of ballet, with some of the characters “standing in the wings” in first position having conversations. The enthusiasm demonstrated by the dancers was hard to miss, as was the difficulty of some period dance steps such as the Lindy.
The choreography for Thursday’s performance was done by Ilena Norton, who, as many of you must be aware, is the Artistic and Executive Director of Ballet Ariel. She has directed the Ballet Ariel Company since 1998 and founded the Ballet Ariel School in 2001. Norton has choreographed many original ballets including Avoca-A Tale of Molly Brown, Fire Dances, and The Birth of Rock and Roll. Clearly, she knows choreography, and there was evidence of much research done on popular styles of past eras.
Judging by the comments that I heard leaving the performance, the audience thoroughly enjoyed The Birth of Rock and Roll. There is absolutely no question that they enjoyed the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra.