Question: What were the bay area’s big band musicians doing during the pandemic?
Answer: Everything but playing music, that’s for sure.
There’s reason to celebrate tonight’s concert at the Palladium Theatre. The Helios Jazz Orchestra is getting onstage for the first time since March 1, 2020, the last day of the last St. Petersburg Jazz Festival.
Helios is a 20-piece big band, with – according to musical director David Manson – many of the finest players on the West Central Florida charts.
Manson, a professor of music (and Distinguished Faculty member) at St. Petersburg College, put Helios together 13 years ago.
“It’s a combination of players,” he explains. “Some freelancers – that’s all they do is play music. We have a pediatrician who plays saxophone with us, we have computer programmers, software writers, private music teachers.”
In other words, a cross-section, a regular rainbow coalition. And the Helios ranks have remained fairly stable for the duration. “We tend to stay with people we have; it creates an ensemble, a true balancing and blending of sound. And personalities as well. That gives the group its character.”
From the most humble bar band to the mighty Florida Orchestra, you’d be hard-pressed to find any music-making combo that didn’t include players with day jobs.
“I think having a combination is really typical of 21st century musicians,” Manson muses. “It’s really tough to make a living just playing your instrument, although we have a couple guys in the group that do that. Most folks have a profession on top, or some kind of skill set that they draw from.
“And they’re all really fine players. In terms of the levels of their abilities and their playing, they’re at the level of Florida Orchestra players.”
Manson himself is a trombonist with an exceptional composing, arranging and performance resume, although he’s not playing tonight’s Palladium gig. He’ll be the dude out front waving the baton.
Helios typically works with a different vocalist for each concert. The singer tonight is velvet-voiced Scotty Wright, a Tampa resident and veteran of 40 years of world stage performances.
“I sing because it is the one activity in which my body, mind and spirit unite in a creative fashion,” Wright wrote on his website. “In my life, the dual objective of art – self-expression and communication – is realized most effectively in the act of singing – specifically, jazz singing.”
This is Wright’s third performance with Helios. “Working with a big band is something singers really enjoy, typically,” Manson says. “They do a lot of combo work, but getting in front of a big band is a totally different experience.”
The set list, cherry-picked by Manson and Wright from their personal lists of Great American Songbook favorites and beyond, includes choice titles like “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” “All the Things You Are” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
“And we’re closing the show with ‘That’s Life,’” explains Manson. “I think that’s very appropriate for the pandemic.”
Manson, who recently returned to teaching after some scary health issues, is looking forward to getting back onstage. During the toughest days of the pandemic, he watched and listened as many musicians he knows performed virtually.
“Personally, I don’t find that very attractive,” he chuckles, “but I think it’s great when people make the effort to do so, especially if it’s high quality.”
Next on Manson’s plate is an Oct. 1 performance by O Som do Jazz, the Brazilian music group that includes Manson on horn, his wife Andrea Moreas on vocals and members of La Lucha, at the St. Petersburg College Quad (Gibbs campus). Admission is free for the 6 p.m. concert, which also includes
the MJR Latin Project, fronted by the Cuban-born bass titan Mauricio Rodriguez.
And on the books for February at the Palladium: The return of the St. Petersburg Jazz Festival.
Tickets for tonight’s Helios Jazz Orchestra concert are here.