The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.  Photo courtesy of Portland Ovations

With Mardi Gras less than a week away, Portland Ovations brought the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to Merrill Auditorium for a concert on Thursday night that celebrated the musical spirit of the band’s hometown, particularly in its more broadly popular manifestations.

The 18-member big band, under the direction of Jazz at Lincoln Center alum Adonis Rose, centered the evening on the music of noted composer Allen Toussaint (1938-2015). He wrote an impressive number of hit songs that subtly employed the various traditions making up the rich and tangy musical mix forever associated with the Crescent City.

Legendary New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt had a huge 1960s hit with Toussaint’s “Java,” and the Orchestra gave the piece a jaunty reading that allowed for dueling trumpet solos, with Ashlin Parker a standout. The arrangement honored the original while effectively integrating large ensemble dynamics.

“Working in the Coal Mine” dug into the tune’s infectious rhythmic contours while summoning big band power. An alto sax solo embedded in a surging brass line was particularly memorable.

“Southern Nights,” made famous in a recording by Glen Campbell, brought vocalist Michael Watson to the microphone, after a tuba solo introduction by Steve Glenn. It was the first of two opportunities to reveal this singer’s way of casually but soulfully personalizing a song. He also excelled on “What a Wonderful World,” a non-Toussaint song made famous by the New Orleans superstar Louis Armstrong.

Though there were several bravura instrumental moments, vocals were an unexpected highlight of the all-too-brief 75-minute performance. Gabrielle Cavassa sang “It’s Raining” and “Ruler of My Heart,” both Toussaint hits associated with the great Irma Thomas. The young Cavassa, though, had her finest moments on the classics “Basin Street Blues” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” The latter piece featured her accompanied by piano (Victor Atkins) and tenor sax (Ricardo Pascal) only, providing an intimate, hushed moment in what was an evening mostly given over to more large-scale numbers.

Early jazz masters Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington received nods, respectively, with a raucous “Get the Bucket” and a more reflective “Come Sunday.” Bassist Amina Scott was a solid contributor on these and other pieces, as was drummer Gerald Watkins Jr. The latter was occasionally spelled by leader Rose, whose playing style bested his somewhat strained comedic efforts.

A final march through the Merrill aisles gave the crowd a close-up look at a band that succeeded in taking them on a musical journey to the magical birthplace of so many great songs.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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