Swing it like Sinatra!

Posted: June 22, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
Tags: , , ,

A trip down memory lane
Jonny Cooper Orchestra
Band Leader:  Jonny Cooper
Review:  Astrid Stark

I grew up to the crooning of Dean Martin, Glen Miller and Frank Sinatra when most girls my age where listening to Beastie Boys and Def Leppard.  It was more so by force than choice, as my father had complete autonomy of the one CD player in the house, and this was a non-negotiable condition that lasted many years.
At first I was deeply resentful of my father and his fuddy-duddy music, but as I blossomed into a terrible teenager, Nat “King” Cole’s Too Young and Dean Martin’s Everybody Loves Somebody just hit the right notes and I was hooked.  By 1998 when Frank Sinatra died, I wept, and it was a complete affirmation when U2’s Bono sang I’ve Got You Under My Skin as a dedication to Old Blue Eyes.

Jonny Cooper Orchestra in full swing, photo byJeff Ayliffe.

Jonny Cooper Orchestra in full swing, photo byJeff Ayliffe.

It is therefore an absolute treat to be able to listen to a big band swing orchestra perform ‘live’ in 2009.  The Jonny Cooper Orchestra is celebrating its 15th year in existence with a string of vigorous performances at the Theatre On The Bay.  This in itself is a treat, as Jonny Cooper points out, the average years of their musical experience tally up to 500; and that’s just in the trombone section.   The 16 man strong orchestra may be grey-haired and spectacled but their performance is energetic and passionate.  The orchestra neatly fills out the small stage and Jonny Cooper says it is his favourite venue because of the great acoustics.   Between the 5 saxophonists, 4 trombone players, 4 trumpeters, a pianist, a double bass player and a drummer, they really shake up the theatre with tributes to The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie.
The familiar classics are great, but when saxophonist Len Richey, who looks to be in his 70’s,  whipped out his Penny Whistle and started playing the Penny Whistle Song as if he was born in a township; he completely stole the show.  And I have never heard a white man groan like Louis Armstrong the way John McBeath did during his performance of Mac the Knife.
The vocal tributes to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin where performed by Beverley Scott-Brown and Cliff Benton.    Whilst I can understand why Scott-Brown’s sharp and high voice was chosen as compliment to Benton’s classic male crooning voice, the due lacked a bit of a spark.  Think of the charisma oozing from Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing You Make Me Feel So Young.  Even Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman got it just right with their Something Stupid duet. That said, Cliff Benton has a natural crooner’s voice.  As any fanatic will tell you, the true crooner’s voice is understated, buttery, and never ever forced.    Benton’s voice has these qualities, and when he does a very funny, slightly drunken, rendition of Volare it really felt like we were transported to the 50’s for a brief glimpse into the life of Dean Martin.
As for band leader, Jonny Cooper, he just oozes passion and old-school charm.   He continuously cracks little jokes at the expense of the band members, who in turn pretend to be indignant and storm, or rather, shuffle slowly from the stage. 
The orchestra has just released their fifth album, Swing Safari, in which they have reworked a selection of well-known African and Afrikaans songs into the 1940’s Swing genre.  It takes a little while getting used to Pata Pata and Suikerbossie being played in Swing style, but it is a totally fresh take on the classics and quite enjoyable.
Thanks to Robbie Williams, Michael Bublé and Westlife, the music of the Swing era has been revived and introduced to a whole new generation.   Thanks to my father, I know that Bublé, for all his sincerity, is not a crooner and that crooners are born and not affected.  And thanks to my father, I can have heated discussions on what truly constitutes a true crooner, the extent of Frank Sinatra’s influence on the American Government, and who was really the leader of the Rat Pack.  This I consider a priceless gift.

Jonny Cooper, Photo 3, Jonny Cooper singing Well Did You Evah  with Cliff Benton.

Jonny Cooper, Photo 3, Jonny Cooper singing Well Did You Evah with Cliff Benton.

Jonny Cooper’s main audience is perhaps still the older generation but they are doing their bit to reach out to the youth by meeting up with children’s orchestras, such as the Junk Orchestra, which is a band of street children playing on instruments made from recycled materials.
In 2004, the USA’s Glenn Miller Productions appointed the Jonny Cooper Orchestra as the official Glenn Miller Orchestra in South Africa;  one of only three official orchestras in the world to have this honour bestowed upon them.
The Jonny Cooper Orchestra performs at The Theatre On The Bay until 4 July.

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