The packed crowd at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts this Sunday, December 10, 2023 afternoon is ready to ring in the holiday season with a concert of big band music presented by the world famous Glenn Miller Orchestra.
From 1939 to 1943, Glenn Miller was America’s #1 best-selling recording artist, leading one of the best-known bands on the planet. At the peak of his career, Miller volunteered for the armed forces and formed a 50-piece Army Air Force Band which he took to Europe in 1944. While flying from the UK to France, Miller’s aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. His wife, Helen, accepted his Bronze Star medal on his behalf.
In 1946, the Miller estate authorized a band which was led by Tex Beneke; this edition of the group toured until 1950. After the 1956 release of the motion picture, The Glenn Miller Story, the Miller estate authorized yet another band, the original version of the current ensemble that’s been continuously on the road for the past 67 years.
Inside the Grunin auditorium, executive director Heidi Sheridan welcomes tonight’s crowd, announcing, “Under the direction of Erik Stabnau, please welcome The Glenn Miller Orchestra!”
The current iteration of the Glenn Miller Orchestra — saxophonists Noah Berrios, Justin Williams, Kevin Sheehan, and Matt Incontro; trumpeters Joe Young, Ashley Hall, and Chris Stein; trombonists Dave Ashley, George Reinert, and Hayden Maple; and pianist Gil Chapman, bassist Joel Murtaugh, and drummer Dean Schweiger — take the stage with saxophonist/leader Erik Stabnau and open with one of Glenn Miller’s signature songs, “Moonlight Serenade.”
Music lovers enjoy the old-time vibrato of the saxophones as they contrast with the trumpets’ and trombones’ punctuating countermelody on this authentic-sounding version of the classic swing ballad.
The sax section starts off “Little Brown Jug” — a rollicking 1939 rendition of the well-known 1869 folk tune — on a perky arrangement which features an Erik Stabnau tenor solo, a Joe Young trumpet solo, and a George Reinert trombone solo.
Saxes bow and trombones sway on a swinging version of Miller’s 1940 Top 5 hit, “Pennsylvania 6–5000.” The audience vocalizes the title in rhythm along with the band, Noah Barrios plays a baritone sax solo, and the trumpet players use hat mutes on their instruments to recreate that authentic Glenn Miller sound.
The crowd applauds, and Stabnau exclaims, “Thank you very much!” before Matt Incontro is featured on sax along with Hayden Maple on trombone and trumpeter Chris Stein on a jolly version of “Frosty the Snowman.”
The ensemble follows up with Stabnau singing lead as he conducts the holiday staple, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Pianist Gil Chapman impresses as he tickles the ivories on “At Sundown,” a number which also features percussionist Dean Schweiger playing a tom-tom solo. The audience cheers when they learn that both talented musicians hail from the Garden State — Chapman from Westfield, NJ and Schweiger from Marlton, NJ.
Stabnau introduces vocalist Jenny Swoish, whose sweet alto vocal is featured on a tune entitled “I Know Why (and So Do You).”
Swoish and Stabnau — along with Kevin Sheehan, Dave Ashley, and Chris Stein — vocalize in harmony on Miller’s 1941 hit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” As they croon the famous, “Pardon me, boy/Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?/Track twenty-nine/Boy, you can gimme a shine?” lyric, audience members clap in time to the swinging rhythm.
Stabnau counts off “Let it Snow” on an arrangement which spotlights Swoish’s strong vocal before Joel Murtaugh’s bass spreads holiday cheer on the ensemble’s arrangement of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Stabnau addresses the crowd, declaring, “We’re delighted to be back in Toms River this afternoon,” prior to announcing, “We’d like to dedicate our next song to a couple in the audience.” Here, Stabnau invites audience members Paul and Sherri to come to the foot of the stage and dance to the band’s rendition of “At Last.”
After the couple glides across the floor, Paul gets down on one knee and proposes. The crowd cheers as Sherri accepts and the pair kisses and hugs. To celebrate the engagement, Stabnau and the band perform Miller’s 1939 smash, “In the Mood” where, along with the rest of the audience, the happy couple smiles and nods to the rousing arrangement.
During intermission, Paul reveals, “Sherri and I have been together for two years and had talked about getting engaged, but she said, ‘You have to pronounce your love to me to the world!’ so I knew I’d have to do something really special.”
Recalling, “I grew up listening to jazz — I played bari sax and I loved playing ‘In the Mood’ — plus my parents’ favorite song was ‘At Last’,” Paul discloses, “After we saw The Glenn Miller Band play in Asbury Park this past summer, I got tickets for today’s show and started to plan the engagement.”
When asked to share her thoughts on today’s betrothal, Sherri exclaims, “I was surprised and I’m ecstatic!” prior to acknowledging, “I love this music!”
Following intermission, the band poses for a photo with Paul and Sherri. Then, they launch into Miller’s 1938 #1 hit, “Tuxedo Junction,” a number which features the brass instruments contrasted with the group’s swinging woodwind section.
After joking that, thanks to his impending wedding, “Paul will be visiting ‘Tuxedo Junction’ in the near future!” Stabnau leads the group as it performs “Stardust” on an arrangement which begins with a Gil Chapman piano intro and continues with a Chris Stein trumpet solo.
Schweiger plays his drum set with a drum stick in his right hand while simultaneously playing the bongos with his bare left hand on an upbeat version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” Then, Jenny Swoish lights up the stage as she returns to perform a lovely interpretation of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”
Before Glenn Miller’s 1941 #1 hit, “A String of Pearls,” where the saxophones play the infamous melodic strain while being punctuated by the brass, trombones stand on a rhythmic rendition of “Winter Wonderland.”
Stabnau dedicates “American Patrol” — a 1942 Miller tune which combines original themes in addition to American melodies like “Dixie” and “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” — to the veterans in the audience as heads bop to the beat on this appealing patriotic number.
Following avid applause, Stabnau and the ensemble conclude tonight’s stroll down Memory Lane with a reprise of “Moonlight Serenade.” Music lovers respond with a standing ovation, and Stabnau says, “We had a wonderful time today and hope to see you again soon,” prior to asking, “Would you like to hear one more?”
The crowd responds in the affirmative and the orchestra performs a merry version of “Jingle Bells,” concluding today’s very special engagement for Paul and Sherri…not to mention the rest of the Grunin Center audience!
To learn more about The Glenn Miller Orchestra, please go to glennmillerorchestra.com. To find out about future events at Toms River’s Grunin Center — including The Doo Wop Project on March 8, Ella: The Early Years presented by Amanda King on March 15, and The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass band on April 6 — please go to grunincenter.org.
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