Big Band Swings Against History's Tide

Elefante said his band always serves up what one critic famously called "the sound of surprise."

"Almost every solo" is surprising, Elefante said. "I'm so blessed, and I don't mean to grandstand, but just by having such great musicians in my band that are able to do anything, surprises me. At any point, they're gonna play something that they've never played before, at least never played for me. And that's what I love. I don't like safe playing. I'm not into safe."

Triple A

Lead alto and soprano saxophonist Bruce Williams has had a lot to do with the Cecil's Big Band's survival. He books the club, hired Joe to lead its big band, and soon discovered that he had installed his own workshop and showcase.

"Playing in the big band really hones your skills," he said. "It helps you learn how to blend, work on the intonation, build camaraderie with other musicians. And also, you get to hear other people solo, and hear things inside the composition in terms of harmony and texture."

In the band, Williams is a star and a model.

"Bruce's playing is like a freight train," Elefante said. "It's awesome -- just got a lot of life. It's got a lot of fire. It's bright, alive."

"When Bruce Williams is soloing," added Yaremko, "I mean, you just want to sit there and clap your hands and … get into it. I mean, it's just really great to have that much energy going throughout the band and throughout the room."

Recently, Williams got his major league opportunity to play for a week at New York's famous Village Vanguard, a kind of Yankee Stadium of jazz venues.

"It means everything to me," he said, "because I love John Coltrane and Jackie McLean and McCoy Tyner, all these people that have played here. And I really aspire to be on their level at some point."

Opportunities like this are only going to come more often for Williams and Hendrix. And Elefante knows that their Monday nights in West Orange may soon be superseded by something better paying.

"I'm sure he'd like to be doing more major league work," Elefante said of Williams. "I'm sure he will be doing more major league work, but he's there. He's arrived. Freddy [has] gotten a couple of swings in the majors, but he's, he's about the top cat in triple A right now. Number one prospect."

Meanwhile, soloing, section work and just playing inside a swinging big band is opportunity enough for veteran Stepton.

"Sitting in the middle of the band is really overpowering," he said. "That sheer power and energy of all the harmonies, all the voices, all the sections, just propelling themselves forward in a musical way. … I guess it might be like being at a concert where you're in the middle of a crowd that's just screaming for whomever is there. And you know how that feels when you're surrounded by that? That's the way it sounds. It's like indescribable."

Up and Comers

Like most working musicians, Elefante also is a teaching musician, giving private lessons at his family's music shop.

"They don't have to be talented," he said. "They don't have to be motivated. They just have to want to be there and want to learn."

For his very best students -- the ones who are dedicated, musical and sharp -- Elefante has an invitation, a band they might join.

"You hear this thing in your head, and you hear all the colors and the sounds," he said. "And then to hear it actually come to life, it never sounds quite like it does in your head. It's always got a life of its own."

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