Gershwin and Porter accompany Bill Kisinger on AMR stage
Purdue's Bill Kisinger walks in the company of two legendary composers whenever his American Music Review swing era big band takes the stage – Broadway genius George Gershwin and Indiana's own Cole Porter.
“It isn't a concert without them,” says Kisinger who takes his final bow in front of the group he created on Friday, April 14, at the retiring professor's farewell concert with American Music Review.
The program for the whole concert, set for 8 p.m. in Loeb Playhouse of the Purdue Stewart Center , is a list tunes familiar to every student musician who's ever played in the Kisinger's ensemble which began in 1982. And that's on purpose.
“They're all my favorite songs,” he says. Tunes like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Stompin' at the Savoy ,” “Moonlight in Vermont ,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Come Fly With Me” and ‘Bluesette.”
Kisinger will even pick up his euphonium for a featured solo spot in Rodgers and Hammerstein's “Hello Young Lovers.”
Although the veteran Boiler musicmaker appears to be rooted in classics from the “Great American Songbook,” he always keeps one foot in the present as his students readily attest to. “We do a lot of really recent arrangements of these tunes. An example of that on this concert is “I Could Write a Book” and Tom Kubis' “Which Craft?” which was inspired by the old song “Witchcraft”, ” says Kristen Wilde who's played trombone in the group for four years and learned to appreciate the group's repertoire.
“I really didn't like it when I came here,” she says. But in rehearsals Kisinger doesn't just plop the music in front of student musicians, he immerses them in the era. “Bill tells us all the history behind every tune, gives us the time setting and plays recordings of it,” she adds.
“By playing the classics we're learning the tunes that all the other jazz tunes come from. If you want to play fusion, you've got to learn Basie,” she says. “I've learned a lot.”
The first big band at Purdue – the forerunner of Kisinger's American Music Review – was a dance band with singers that organized in the 1950s. Eventually, it came to be known as Variety Band and under the director of Roger Heath and Dick Dunscomb, it made dozens of USO tours to Europe, Iceland , Greenland and beyond. Those opportunities had ended when Dunscomb asked Kisinger to take over the band in 1982 and gave him a chance to put his own unique stamp on it.
One of the first things Kisinger did was grab an opportunity to study with arranger Kirby Shaw, whose arrangements still dominate the AMR repertoire. That experience with vocal jazz “really gave me some definition,” says Kisinger. Working with a 10-piece band that boasted the same instrumentation as the dance band Kisinger played in during his college years at the University of Illinois , “I went for more singers and some really good dancers.”
At the same time, the ensemble shed the bland moniker of Variety Band. “I wanted the word American in there,” Kisinger says and since the group would be playing stage shows, the word “review” seemed perfect. So the ensemble officially became known as American Music Review.
In the early 1980s the show choir era was in full bloom and Kisinger's pop-oriented band was part of it. Highly popular, it was called upon to provide entertainment in many different venues and was featured as nightly entertainment on four Caribbean cruises.
Unlike show choirs, however, the dancers didn't sing and the singers didn't dance. Expanding the band's repertoire proved to be challenging because there weren't many arrangements for 10-piece ensembles and Kisinger found it increasingly difficult, with his many duties at Purdue Bands, to find adequate time for arranging. By the early 1990s the ensemble was at a crossroads.
“It wasn't really a show choir and we never considered it vocal jazz. We were a complete anomaly. And no one used a 10-piece band except Kalamazoo ,” he recalls. Making the leap to a full-size big band gave Kisinger a seeming endless sea of arrangements to pick from. With the move, the dancers were eliminated and the singers pared from 14 to four or five.
That's when Gershwin and Porter - whose music was nightly fare on his parents' stereo as he grew up - started following him around. “I wanted to finish out the later years of my career with the music I liked,” he said. Kisinger wondered whether the students will follow his lead into the classics, but “once I got it started, those kids didn't want to sing pop songs anymore,” he says with pride.
In the style of the big bands, solo singers croon soulful ballads into the microphone enjoying the lush instrumental backdrop of the band, and on certain tunes all the singers join together in four-part harmony.
“Over the last decade we've found the right mix that attracts a crowd,” Kisinger says. “I like music that just jumps up and grabs you. As much as I love ballads you can't have a constant barrage of ballads. You have to keep it fast, keep it lively and keep it going,” he adds.
The Frank Mantooth arrangement of the classic ballad “Moonlight in Vermont ” on the April 14 concert serves as a perfect example of Kisinger's mantra. “It's definitely a funky version that pushes the piece beyond a ballad,” Kisinger adds.
His musical mix centers around big band standards from the likes of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, songs from Broadway musicals – Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein are favorites - and of course George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
The enthusiastic response of concert crowds to Kisinger's musical mix isn't lost on the young musicians in American Music Review. “We always play recognizable music,” says Wilde. “That's what everyone comes out for.”
Admission to Bill Kisinger's Farewell Concert with American Music Review is free. No tickets needed; doors will open at 7:30 p.m.