Part of the collateral damage of the Alex Theatre's ambitious physical face-lift has been the suspension of the Glendale Pops series. Saturday night, after a year's absence, director Matt Catingub gave a decisive demonstration of why this remains one of the important SoCal big bands, though it performs only a handful of times each year.
Made up of many of first-call session players, the flawless execution and excellent interpretive skills on display belied the one rehearsal the band put into the concert. But then, that's what professionals can do; this band ought to have a record deal.
The program, "Fusion: Jazz That Rocks," might have appeared self-serving on its face; Catingub and so many of his generation of SoCal musicians cut their musical teeth on the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago and Steely Dan. Attendance didn't overwhelmingly confirm the affection for that music (700 for a 1,400-capacity house), but there was no argument in the quality of the music. Nor was the crowd shy about showing its approbation: Catingub and guest singer Anita Hall got lots of audience participation on songs like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and "25 or 6 to 4."
That music wasn't conceived as sing-along fare — it was cool, hip and harmonically interesting. When horn-laden bands crashed the Top 40 (roughly 1968-1975), they proved that jazz could rock and that rock could kind of swing. Catingub, a saxophonist and pianist, cut his teeth on those songs. Like GP trumpeter Bob Summers, trombonist Alex Iles, saxophonist Gene Burkhert and guitarist Grant Geissman, he came of musical age when youngsters could still play in a big band and hone their chops in clubs.
Catingub's a superb arranger/orchestrator of great resource, and one of unerring taste. Instead of trying to reimagine the music of those three bands — he took the original charts and expanded the orchestral color, deepened the textures and enriched the voicings. The string complement buoyed the interludes in "Spinning Wheel" and "You Made Me So Very Happy" and played rhythm on the Latin section of "God Bless the Child."
A purist might have pined for a more adventurous scouring of the deeper repertory, but this was a pops concert, after all. Catingub knows his audience and what it can absorb. Geissman's solos and breaks, Burkhert's tenor sax workouts, and Steve Moretti's vigorous drumming supplied quite enough musical sophistication.
The statuesque Hall is a journeywoman contralto, and she brought sensual heat to "God Bless the Child," and credible soul to "If You Leave Me Now." Catingub handled at least as many vocals as she. If he's not the deep baritone of David Clayton Thomas or the shrill falsetto of Peter Cetera, he hit the notes with more than a little range.
Afterward, an exhilarated Catingub spoke about the Glendale Pops as stagehands quietly struck the stage. "I'm thrilled to get back to Glendale," he said. "I lead pops orchestras in Hawaii and Macon, and the quality of this band is just tremendous."
His approach to the pops format is unique. Though most orchestras supporting guest soloists are still based on the Arthur Fiedler template, Catingub stresses high energy and musical versatility. "I don't know anybody else who," he notes with pride, "brings Steely Dan to a symphony. I like to think of these more as events than concerts."
There are frustrations, to be sure. "This band is so great," he sighs, "I wish we were at the top of everyone's list of places to go on a Saturday night; with musicians this good, we should be much better known beyond Glendale."
The high energy that the Glendale Pops brings to its concerts is something that Catingub wants to flow off the stage. "As much as I love the Alex," he says with a grin, "I wish there was room for people to dance!"
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.