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Rory Partin and His All Star Big Band at Santa Monica’s Typhoon

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A great weekend for dance

Now that Daft Punk has abandoned Electronic Dance Music (and won a Grammy for the effort!) I thought I would explore other ways to get my heel-clicking kicks. So Saturday night I joined Trombone Shorty and a thousand or so of his fans at the El Ray Theater in Los Angeles for a swaying and bobbing New Orleans-blues/rock dance madness party, and Sunday night I ventured to Santa Monica’s Typhoon venue for Rory Partin and his All Star Big Band. Both were a blast.

You saw Trombone Shorty for his appearance on the Grammys playing with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Madonna during the mass wedding. You may not know Rory Partin, although he has played some pretty big venues including presidential balls for both President Bush and President Clinton and appears in hip showcase clubs like Hotel Café with his wife, Alexa James, in his pop band, The Roamies.

Needless to say, this is not your father’s big band dance music. Oh, the standards were there – “Route 66”, “Georgia on My Mind”, “Walkin My Baby Back Home”. And the band – a brass-heavy, 15-member collection of top musicians from LA and beyond – played them with skill, enthusiasm and humor. But although Partin’s performance evoked the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet, he added a twist - a bit of his native New Orleans and his Nashville songwriting background that makes them today. He crooned, he laughed, he joked, he seduced the audience. And he did it all while putting on a conducting performance that was a wonder to watch.

His arms waved, his hands flapped and fluttered, his fists pumped, his fingers pointed as he strode back and forth in the cramped area cleared by the Typhoon for the band. It was a visual tour de force that you could dance to. And dance we did, even though the room was packed with tables and people.

I got there early to order dinner and watch the band set up (a not-to-miss treat). As the trombones, trumpets, guitar, stand-up bass, electric piano, flutes, clarinets and various other implements of musical creation assembled their stands, hooked up their wires and started tuning, the Typhoon sounded like a symphony warming up on acid. Tweets (the sonic kind), squeaks, booms, pings, toots and other mostly on key but other worldly sounds mixed with laughter and conversation from the band. The set up made us smile and anticipate what it would sound like when they actually played music.

Partin got the party started with “Route 66”, Bobby Troupe’s paean to America’s iconic cross-country highway, a song covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones. He moved on to “I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “In Other Words”, his glass-smooth voice curled with a Louisiana accent making these post war standards seem like now.

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Things got really interesting with the anthem from the Three-Penny Opera, “Mack The Knife” . After giving us the song’s history, Rory poured high energy into it and the band gave it the extra dimension that only a full platoon of horns is capable of. Plus, everyone hit all the complex key changes the song demands – no small feat for 15 people. “Knife” signaled that, for sure, this is not your father’s dance music. If there had been room we could have rocked the Typhoon, but even with only a tiny bit of party space conjured by couples around the bar it was still fun.

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Things slowed down and got romantic with the Cole Porter song, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, made famous by Frank Sinatra and later making appearances in Star Trek, The Flintstones and the Walking Dead TV series. Again, Partin delivered it with respect for its pedigree but with the curl of his southern accent and pop understanding.

Partin was generous with his music Sunday night, also fitting in “It Had To Be You”, “Night and Day”, “The Very Thought of You”, “Someday” and closing the first set with “Georgia On My Mind”. Every song was delivered with his trademark perfect croon accented with a southern twist and a bit of pop. In “Night And Day” he ratcheted up the tempo and moved the band into a cha-cha beat for even more dance fun around the bar. Alexa then joined him in an updated and high energy back and forth rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, the chemistry between them both loving and droll, as Alexa’s expressive big blue eyes and knowing grin told us she knew exactly what kind of warmth he wanted.

The highest energy event of the first set was “ Jambalaya”, written by Hank Williams and Moon Mullican and covered by an astonishing range of artists including John Fogerty, The White Stripes, the Indian pop star Usher Ilya, Freddie Fender and the Muppets. Partin’s cover was done Dixieland style and it sounded perfect. It was New Orleans pure and high-tempo fun.

Much of the audience stayed for the second show – the music was too good to pass up. The set list changed some, with many of the same standards but more of his pop projects. Alexa joined the band on four songs, including a solo belt of “I Want To Be your Girlfriend” that made everyone sit up and say “wow, let’s hear more of this woman”. As with the first show, Partin put on a conducting display directing the band with encompassing, frenetic, authoritative gestures.

If anything, the smaller audience gave the room a warm intimacy that he and Alexa used to their advantage, singing to people at their tables, even holding hands with one fan. All-in-all, it was a great weekend for dance and a great night with Rory Partin and his All Star Big Band.

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Rory and Alex will morph into their pop identity, The Roamies on March 4 at Hotel Café in Hollywood. Should be equally as much fun.

Patrick O’Heffernan
Host, Music FridayLive!