by Anthony Harrison
The rhythm section played a jazzy, mid-tempo vamp on the intro to Stephen Sondheim’s Oscar-winning song, “Sooner or Later.”
Then the star strutted onstage to rapturous applause from the full house.
Molly Ringwald, the princess of John Hughes’ Brat Pack, stunned with short blond hair matching a slinky gold-sequined dress. And her sultry alto matched the playfully provocative lyrics: “No one I’ve kissed, babe, ever fights me again/ If you’re on my list, it’s just a question of when.”
But the real stars were the college-aged kids backing her up.
That’s not to say Ringwald was bad. Granted, she was occasionally pitchy, and her voice was sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of the big band behind her.
Yet she clearly possesses jazz knowledge and passion for the Great American Songbook, and her voice fit the material, especially on the quieter ballads like Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain.”
“People ask why I sing songs from the Great American Songbook instead of writing my own,” Ringwald told the audience. “Any time I have a thought or emotion, I feel like I can find a song from this golden era expressing it.”
All the same, it’s no surprise that UNCG’s jazz and string ensembles both contain very talented young men and women. It’s upstaging a movie star that came unexpectedly.
“I gotta say I envy you,” Ringwald admitted after “Sooner or Later” wrapped. “What a great orchestra you have here.”
The first set was devoted solely to the jazz and string ensembles playing together. Ringwald’s performance came second in the night.
They kicked off the night with Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece, “Take the A Train,” opening with a simple trio: piano, drums and upright bass. Senior Aaron Gross played a nice bass solo, jumping from low-range thumps on the downbeat to plucking all the way up the neck in the next moment. Senior pianist Thomas Linger then took a solo filled with Duke Ellington flourishes before playing the classic opening figure, cueing the rest of the band to pick up the head. And the horns sounded as pure and perfect as Duke’s orchestra.
All but one of the tunes in the first half of the evening were arranged by members of the jazz ensemble. The only tune not arranged by a student was Billie Holiday’s infamous blues, “Fine and Mellow,” featuring senior Lauren Seay on vocals and upright bass.
Seay was a revelation. She delivered the tune with Holiday’s verve and vibrato, all while walking a sauntering bass line. Her masterful coordination inspired spontaneous applause. Seay’s solo was also worthy of raves, focusing on the lower range and featuring lots of bluesy slides.
Baritone saxophonist Melvin Holland also contributed a great solo. Holland elevated above the gimmicky, gut-bucket honks, instead opting for a sweet, melodious chorus atypical of the instrument’s stereotypes.
Seay stayed on vocals for two more songs: “You Go to My Head,” arranged by Seay herself and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” arranged by tenor saxophonist Will England.
As stunning as Seay’s chops were on “Fine and Mellow,” England’s arrangement startled the crowd. He took full opportunity of the string section, lending a lush, “sweet band” feel to the down-tempo intro — until tenor saxophonist Chris Bittner launched into a cascading, Coltrane-esque break, rocketing the tempo into a quick double time.
England also arranged a tune for Ringwald’s set: Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s immortal show tune, “I Feel Pretty,” from West Side Story. It was one of the highlights for Ringwald, who seemed to have warmed up sufficiently, spitting out the lyrics with quick, spunky phrasing. Tenor saxophonist Dan Hitchcock gave Bittner a run for his money with his soulful solo, filled with the bright, sunny blues of Cannonball Adderley’s best moments.
But England’s arrangement wowed the audience. After Hitchcock’s solo, the tune took a tangent, halting for one thrilling, pulsating moment recalling the suspenseful trilling in Igor Stravinksy’s “Spring Rounds” from The Rite of Spring.
The crowd couldn’t help but applaud such clear, nascent brilliance.
Ringwald’s final tune came next, but not before Jazz Studies Director Steve Haines walked out on stage to address the audience.
Along with announcing that the concert raised $12,640 in ticket sales — all of which would go to United Way — Haines brought out his 5-week-old son Ben to the hushed crowd.
“Ben, I’d like to introduce you to the band,” Haines said. “Ben, this is the band. Band, Ben.”
Cue mewing from the audience.
The final song was a tribute to Ringwald’s director, John Hughes.
“This song isn’t from the Great American Songbook, but it’s from a great American movie,” Ringwald said before the band played the intro to “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
Simple Minds’ classic was transformed into a torch song, and aside from England’s take on “I Feel Pretty” was the most inventive and interesting of the arrangements for Ringwald.
No one will forget Ringwald — neither her acting nor her performance that night. And it’s doubtful anyone will soon forget the burgeoning talent they witnessed behind her.