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@Government Center Amphitheater 6-22-02
Jimmy Wilkins Band & The Cunninghams
New Life Jazz, This, That & Scat
by R.J. Bianchino
The Jazz Internet
Las Vegas Jazz n' Blues
Las Vegas Blues
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Jimmy Wilkins New Life Orchestra, Las Vegas 2002

It was a warm, pleasant Nevada evening. A perfect night for jazz. Tonight's performance was to be the last of the "Jazz in the Park" concerts for the year. Featured was the Jimmy Wilkins New Life Orchestra. The band leader moved from Michigan to Las Vegas in 1994, bringing with him a long legacy of music. Jimmy Wilkins' impressive portfolio includes 36 years fronting a big band in Detroit, and countless sessions with Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Junior Walker. On the jazz side Jimmy has worked with Clark Terry, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

The Wilkins' orchestra opened the first set with "Right On, Right On," a composition of the late Ernie Wilkins, Jimmy's brother. Although Jimmy has said that his new band hasn't had time to "tighten up" like the Detroit band, the tune was pretty "right on" in anybody's book. An original composition, "Speak Low," followed. The next shot called was Count Basie's "Corner Pocket." Wikins made note that this was the instrumental version and not the vocal "Until I Met You" by Joe Williams. After which Duke Pearson's "Jeanine" was dedicated to the composer's soul partner.

No big band concert seems complete without a selection from the Ellington songbook. Jimmy chose Billy Strayhorn's "I Didn't Know About You" which featured a beautiful alto solo by Charles McClean. On the next song Adelaide Robbins contributed an organ solo. This was followed by "Down For The Count" written by Frank Foster. Then it was back to an Ernie Wilkins' chart for "Jennie," a little Bossa Nova dedicated to Ernie's wife. The orchestra closed with the original composition "We And Us" - Jimmy says the flip side is "Y'all And Them" - leaving the audience well satisfied and anxiously awaiting the second set with The Cunninghams.

The Cunninghams. Two voices. First one voice solos. The second voice solos. Then both blend in harmonic bliss. The sound this jazz vocal duo achieves is augmented by their high energy and total devotion to the music they love, and their love for each other. Two Cunninghams - one voice.

Don & Alicia Cunningham at Jazz in the Park, June 2002 After the intermission jazz vocalists The Cunninghams took to the stage. Often billed as the "dynamic duo" Don and Alicia Cunningham quickly set about giving credence to the title. They opened with Neal Hefti's "Two For The Blues" which included a medley of "Everyday I Have The Blues," (a song made famous by Joe Williams with the Count Basie Orchestra) and "Stormy Monday." Next, they gently admonished the audience by telling them "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and proceeded to prove the point. Alicia's command of the high notes at song's end was pure pleasure.

Another Duke Ellington composition, "What Am I Here For," followed and featured a Jimmy Wilkins trombone solo. Then came the surprise. Don reached for a plunger and it was expected he'd give it to Jimmy to mute his horn. Instead he reached for a second plunger and handed it to Alicia. Both approached their mics and used the plunger to add a pleasant vibrato affect.

The next song, Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings," began as a solo by Alicia. She was soon joined by Don for a scat session which closed the number nicely. "Billy's Bounce," from the Cunninghams' "Make Me (A Sweet Potato Pie)," followed. For this selection the orchestra was switched to a combo setting that featured nice soloing by keyboardist Adelaide Robbins and drummer Pat Sharrod. The Cunninghams even threw in some "Salt Peanuts" for good measure.

Don Cunningham on congas, Clark County Government Center It was time for Alicia to take a break. So her partner sat down behind the congas and gave Gerald Wilson's "Viva Tirado" his best. Never one to sit for long, Don strapped on an African talking drum (Tjambe) - Don says it's also called a Tam Tam - and walked over to the drummer. He and Pat Sharrod then exchanged licks to the delight of the audience. Alicia was brought back to bask in the spotlight. Choosing to sing "Little Girl Blue," she warmed the audience with a beautiful interpretation of the Ernie Wilkin's ballad.

A jazzy evening of this, that and scat, had given birth to the blues, bebop bounce, and ballads. The concert was drawing to a close and the time had come to bring it all on home. What better way to do so than with Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." The Cunninghams and Wilkins served up a lively and robust rendition of this classic - complete with a stirring scat version of the Illinois Jacquet sax solo. Only one thing was missing from the night's performance - the always delightful Don and Jimmy duet "Mumbles." The routine was briefly inserted into the Hampton tune. "Flying Mumbles," indeed!

jazzNotes: On Saturday, August 17 The Cunninghams will be at "Jazz n' Blues Stepping" on the steps of the North Las Vegas Court House. Also appearing are the SpellCasters featuring Charles Dennis (aka Charlie Tuna) who just got back from touring with B.B. King's band. It's all part of a summer concert series sponsored by the City of North Las Vegas.

Photography by R.J. Bianchino copyright © 2002-2003 Moondog Productions

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