Big band concert planned at Presbyterian church

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Jeff Solon isn’t sure what the official position of Presbyterian leaders is on dancing in church. But he’s wondering if that might be an issue when his band performs at the First Presbyterian Church of Farmington this weekend as part of the Showcase on Dustin series.

Jeff Solon has been leading his Swing'n Big Band in the Four Corners area for the last 25 years.

“It’s a dance band,” said Solon, a veteran Four Corners area musician and Durango, Colo., resident who has led the Jeff Solon Swing’n Big Band for 25 years. “I don’t know if they allow dancing in church, but I’m sure some people will feel compelled to dance.”

Solon, a saxophone player and jazz studies instructor at Fort Lewis College, is well known to local music fans, having played here a number of times over the last half century, including several fundraising shows for the San Juan College Foundation. He performs jazz music in a number of configurations, and his big band is certainly the most energetic of those groups.

Taking the stage this weekend with Solon will be Sam Kelly on alto sax, Mike Gutierrez on tenor sax, Jared Wright on trumpet, Paul Bara on trombone, Farmington’s Mick Hesse on trumpet, Justin Pfeiffer on piano, Ely Rio on bass, John O’Neil on drums and Tim Sullivan on vocals.

The group will perform a roster of popular swinging jazz tunes this weekend, including “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, “Bye Bye Blackbird” by Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Ellington, “Fly Me to the Moon” by Bart Howard, “Georgia” by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, “Moonlight Serenade” by Glen Miller and “Jive at Five” by Count Basie and Harry Edison.

“It’s steeped in the familiar,” Solon said of that set list.

Jeff Solon's Swing'n Big Band will perform a variety of standards this weekend in Farmington as part of the Showcase on Dustin series.

He said that material is markedly different from what he plays with his smaller groups, which usually focus on more obscure jazz material.

“For the common listener, it’s not very familiar,” he said of the set list for the latter. “But this is a way to reach a lot of people. It’s very multi generational.”

Those 60 or older will recognize many of those songs as the pop music they grew up with, Solon said. But he emphasized that many younger listeners also have gone through periods when they were exposed to the music, particularly through such films as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Swingers.”

Solon inherited the big band a quarter century ago and has kept it going through some challenging times. Many years ago, he said, it was very difficult to find qualified players in the region, so when a musician left the band, it was tough to find a replacement.

“Years ago, when I first started, the area wasn’t as rich with musicians as it has become over the last 10 years,” he said. “People didn’t read music and play well enough to play this kind of music, and there weren’t many like-minded spirits out there.”

But that has changed over time, he said. Solon’s position as a faculty member at FLC has acquainted him with many talented young musicians, and a handful have gone on to join one of his bands.

“I teach a lot of students, and I’ve got all these great kids I personally trained,” he said. “So it’s easier now. This band is built for eight to 10 people, and 20 years ago, it was difficult to find eight to 10 people who could do that.”

Three members of Solon’s big band are former students of his at FLC and one is a current student.

“It’s a thrill because I’ve trained them,” he said.

The Durango area has become a magnet in recent years for musicians playing in progressive bluegrass or jam bands. Solon said the fact that many of those musicians may not be primarily interested in jazz or even classical music doesn’t mean they aren’t technically advanced and very talented.

“I think that’s because that generation appreciates good music and can appreciate anything that’s done well,” he said. “I teach a jazz improvisation class at the college, and I have one student who is a (mandolin) player and two who are violinists who play in a fiddle band, a jam band. They’re studying jazz with me, and that study of jazz is why they’re better musicians. The mando player and the violin players are expanding their minds and techniques.”

Solon said he has a female student set to graduate in December who is a gifted fiddler for a local band. He recalled how she reacted with dismay when she started her studies at FLC and learned she would have to play classical music, but Solon said she has turned out to be a much better musician in her chosen genre as a result of those studies.

“Her chops are hot,” he said. “She’s on fire.”

Success stories like that keep Solon enthused about what he does, even if not all those students wind up playing with him. His big band doesn’t perform as often as he would like it to, but he said the experience has never gotten stale, even as the decades have gone by.

“It’s not like the old days of going down the road 43 weeks a year, six nights a week and you hate the people you’re on the bus with,” he said. “Plus, I do a lot of writing and arranging, and that helps keep it fresh.”

Proceeds from this weekend’s concert will benefit Northwest New Mexico Hospice.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: The Jeff Solon Swing’n Big Band performs as part of the Showcase on Dustin concert series

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19

Where: The First Presbyterian Church, 865 N. Dustin Ave. in Farmington

Tickets: $10 at the door

For more information: Call 505-327-5231