Glenn Miller Band preserves the past with smooth hits of the '40s
The Glen Miller Orchestra opened with its 1939 theme song “Moonlight Serenade,” at the Troy Music Hall Thursday night, following with two sets of more than 20 hits from the 1940s.
Led by Nick Hilscher, who sang and conducted, Thursday night’s band considers itself the same group that came together in 1956, 12 years after Miller died in a plane accident.
The band mostly swung in that mid-tempo ’40s kind of way, and never attacked or punched up the tunes beyond Miller’s smooth, made-for-radio sound. There was no first-trumpet position screaming for high notes or thundering big-band drumming, but there were smooth melodies played by a mellow sax section, with gliding layers of harmony from the other sections, and the trombones deftly anchoring the bottom end.
They played songs like “Caribbean Clipper,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Serenade in Blue,” and “String of Pearls.” These were large hits from when Miller’s music was giant — when the outlets for music were limited to a ’78 record, the radio, and concerts.
Natalie Angst, who recently joined the band to maintain a Miller Band tradition, came out to sing “Get me to the Church on Time,” and “I’m Glad There is You.” Later in the show she returned to sing “Pennies from Heaven,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” She was nice to hear, but Hilscher, who also sang a few, was stronger and more experienced, giving us decent renditions of “White Cliffs of Dover,” and “Without a Song,” which had a modern feel — you could imagine the Sinatra era starting.
Members of the 15-piece band were all white and male, an odd tradition that stems from the segregation of jazz which continued for decades.
For “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which Hilscher said was the first gold record awarded, three horn players joined Hilscher and Angst at the microphone as a group, similar to Miller’s original singing group. The entire horn players stood for the crescendo on this one, creating some visual excitement, but the music didn’t rise any higher than the other tunes.
The music was loyal to the original Miller Orchestra arrangements, so loyal that Hilscher announced things like, “let’s hear it for the trombone section solo that was written into the song.” In this case, it was 12 bars at most. All the solos were short, and the audience clapped after every solo, often applauding on top of the next guy’s brief solo.
There were moments that lacked fresh punch, a casualty of playing some 300 shows and 48 weeks a year, five days a week.
Hilscher was fun to watch, dancing while conducting, clearly enjoying his role. When he counted off upbeat hits like “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” he used his entire body before the tune started to communicate the energy he expected.
As typical, the sound was impeccable in the hall, the click of the hi-hat clear from the back row.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra doesn’t punch like the Count Basie or Duke Ellington bands. Miller was about hits that came over the radio for the entire family, while the other bands liked to wail with excitement.
The audience, as you might guess, was on the older side. The band itself ranged from players who appeared very young to very old.
The big band sound is a quintessential American sound, and it’s unfortunate that there is no “next generation” of fans. Even old nostalgic rock and jazz shows draw youth. The big bands on a national level are practically dried up (there are local acts keeping the torch alive, like Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble).
Thursday night’s show was more like a museum presentation, preserving the past, rather than moving it forward. Unless there is an unexpected resurgence, this may be the last generation of big band tours.