Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme were in town, and after not getting called for the gig year after year, I finally got the call this time. Every musician in town drools over the chance to play with them, because the level of musicality is higher than almost every other gig in the world, except perhaps for Sinatra Jr (and Sr, when he was living). Forget Rod Stewart; this is the quintessential performance of the Great American Songbook. Rehearsal was scheduled from 1:30 to 5:30, with the gig at 7:30pm. There was a full big band (4 trumpets, 3 bones, 5 woodwinds) plus rhythm section and ten string players. I arrived at 12:30, which was the middle of the pack, and grabbed the easist book in my section (I knew I wasn't playing lead, and since the rest of the chairs pay the same, why work harder for the same money?) As it turned out, nobody got off easy. As I looked through my music, I found two exposed solos waiting for me. And then there they were: mixed in with Steve and Eydie's charts were original charts from Sinatra's own book: I've Got You Under My Skin, and Fly Me to the Moon, two of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. The music was arranged by Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Bill Holman, Quincy Jones, some of the greatest in the business. Usually, when you play versions of these tunes, they are scaled down for smaller instrumentation. Not today; today there were 30 people onstage. Usually they are transcription, and usually bad transcriptions at that--wrong notes, wrong rhythms, etc. Not these. These were the originals, right on the stand in front of me. Jesus, I'd pay a thousand bucks to get these charts on a xerox machine. I'm not kidding. The conductor was Sinatra Sr's former conducter, and wasn't putting up with any BS. A cello player called to say she couldn't find the venue, and this didn't make the conductor happy. "I've never been late to a gig IN MY LIFE!" She stumbled in just as we were starting.We ran down the show, which was about 20 tunes, and the slightest mistake did not go unnoticed by the conductor. "I heard a flat five over there. Let me hear that again." Or, "Strings, the articulation is very clearly marked. You need to put space between those notes there, and because there are only ten of you, you can't possibly play loud enough, so dig in!""Let me have a timpani roll at the beginning of this tune. Where the hell is the timpani player? TIMPANI PLAYER, WHERE ARE YOU?" A top-notch pro, and he was nowhere to be seen. Unbelievable. We started the song without him, the conductor shaking his head. When we got to the tune that began with a 16-bar solo by me, I fracked a note and he glanced in my direction, but said nothing. As the piece continued, I noticed that I was playing the solo on the wrong horn! Crap! Did he notice? I glanced over at the rest of my section, and they were all staring straight ahead. I hadn't a friend in the world at that moment. Gulp. The conductor discussed a passage with some other players, and we ran it from the top again, and this time I had the right horn and didn't miss anything. The rest of the section gave me a thumbs-up and we moved on. Whew. The next tune, another guy in our section had a similarly-exposed solo at the beginning, and *he* fracked a note. On the second try, he too got the whole thing without a miss. It went like this for tune after tune. Most of them were near-perfect on the first try, and picture perfect on the second. For "Fly Me", the chart was a scribbled-out mess. The famous "shout chorus" in the middle was completely marked out, and so I didn't even play it. Oddly enough, the rest of the band did, and then I saw "play the ink" written in the margin, meaning ignore the hand-written stuff and play the chart as printed. Half the notes were illegible, but fortunately this is one of the most famous big band charts in the world and I was able to figure out what to play by ear on the second time around. For "Skin", the conductor said "You all know the tempo, so I won't even count it off. You'll get a downbeat and that's it." We took a break, and were told to be onstage at 3:55, and then Steve and Eydie would arrive at 4pm and we'd run the show with them.At 3:55, the big band was onstage, but the string players were not. The conductor again got mad at the contractor, who had to run back and find them. Then Steve walked out and greeted everyone, and Eydie came out pushing a walker. You could almost heat the entire orchestra thinking "Oh, crap." She'd just had a knee operation, and it was their first gig in 4 months. Over the next 90 minutes, we ran the entire show AGAIN, from top to bottom. Eydie's pitch was a little off at times, but Steve still sounds amazing, even in his early 70s. He sounds so much like Sinatra it was like listening to a recording.Then a two-hour break, during which time the doors opened and about five thousand people showed up while we ate and put on our tuxes. I heard two saxophonists, experienced pros, talking. "Are you nervous?" "I'm scared to death. I'm sh-ting my pants." "Me too."Then the gig started. A highlights video started off the show, and then a drumroll, and we were off. Steve bounded out, with the energy of a man decades younger. Eydie walked out without any sign of a limp, and they did the first few numbers. Eydie then sat on a stool. They pointed to us. "Look at that! A real, live, full-size big band and orchestra! Real musicians! No sequences! No lip-synching! No drum machine! No backing tracks! The real deal!" Crowd goes nuts. It was one of those moments. We got to the tune that started off with my solo, with Steve and Eydie and the conductor and five thousand paying customers all looking in my direction, and I'm happy to say I nailed it. So did the next guy, on his tune. In fact, everybody nailed everything, and we had fun doing it. How can you not have fun playing great tunes for a roomful of people, with world-class artists cheering you on the whole time?Steve talked about how, one Christmas, a big box showed up at his house, wrapped in red and green. He opened the box and found stacks of orchestrations. The original orchestrations that had been used for decades by Frank Sinatra. With a note from Frank saying "Keep the music alive." Then we played "Skin" and "Fly Me". The gig lasted for almost two and half hours, without a break. The moment the house lights came on, the conducter collected the music. No chance to "borrow" it. Damn! It was a long day, but arguably the best gig I have ever played and I hope I have a chance to do it again. They are the Real Deal, and the music is second to none. It is to jazz what Mozart and Beethoven are to classical, what the Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix are to rock and roll. If they come near you, see them. Bite me, Rod Stewart.
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