I’m a long time Al Jarreau fan. I’ve seen him in concert many times over the years; however, this concert was different. Mr. Jarreau was performing with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Airmen of Note; the premier jazz ensemble of the USAF. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Airmen of Note, and Al Jarreau was chosen to perform with them to close out the series. The Jazz Heritage Series was a succession of concerts featuring the Airmen of Note performing with iconic jazz masters. This series was very popular for Washington, DC area jazz fans, which packed the Lisner Auditorium to capacity.
This was my first time attending a concert by the Airmen of note. They have a distinguished legacy in the DC area, and people come out in droves to see them perform. Since they are a military band, they began the evening with a presentation of the flag and the playing of the National Anthem. The USAF Airmen of Note is a big band, complete with an extensive horn section, which made their mark during the course of the evening. The band opened with a Louis Armstrong song, “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” which featured both a saxophone and a trumpet solo. There were many horn solos that night, including one from Master Sergeant Doug Moran on the baritone sax. The bari is an instrument that we don’t see or hear a lot in the smooth jazz world. The Airmen, of course, are not all men. Technical Sergeant Paige Martin sang, “I Bet You Thought I’d Never Find You,” before the distinguished guest artist was introduced. He thanked the Airmen for their service, their talent, and for inviting him to sing with them.
Hearing classic Jarreau songs backed by this amazing band was a thrill. The songs were big, and the arrangements reflected that. Some of the arrangements were changed to compliment the Airmen and their style. “Sticky Wicket,’ “Feels So Good,” and “Spain,” all included horn solos by the military band. “Teach Me Tonight,” and “Boogie Down,” sounded great adapted to the big band sound.
If you’ve seen Mr. Jarreau perform before, you know that he sometimes likes to start a song in the middle, or at the chorus, so even if you know his music, you’re not exactly sure what’s coming. He likes to keep us guessing, which is fine. That’s how he started “Morning.” By the time the song ended, we were all reaching up our hands and trying to touch the face of God right along with him.
“Jacaranda Bougainvillea” was inspired by Nelson Mandela and the ending of apartheid in South Africa. It is a song for the new South Africa, and it was extremely moving for me hearing it performed live for the first time. When he sang, “Oh Mandela, that garden that you made, is a vision of the prayer, you must’ve been prayin’ everyday,” I was moved. But, the whole evening was filled with moving moments; hearing the National Anthem in all of its glory, and seeing all of the musicians in their dress uniforms, hearing Jarreau sing an a cappella tune, “This is Worth Fighting For,’ to an audience where you could hear a pin drop, and hearing Paige Martin sing a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful.” We were all filled with pride as the band performed this patriotic tune. It was truly a special evening. There was such admiration for Mr. Jarreau from the band as well as from the audience. Many people, like me, have followed his career for years, and we see him whenever he comes to town. We adore him. One of the reasons we do is that he makes us believe that the feelings are reciprocated from the stage. He always thanks his audience for supporting him over the years, even when he was between projects, and he thanks people for supporting live music in general.
Before the evening ended, the Airmen presented Mr. Jarreau with an award. They referred to him as a national treasure. Truly he is. He is a unique talent and we’re fortunate to have his music as part of our national heritage.
The USAF Band closed out the evening as it began, in patriotic fashion, playing their theme song, “Wild Blue Yonder.” It was a wonderful evening. The Airmen are not only talented musicians, but they’ve made the choice to serve our country, to which we are grateful. Al Jarreau with the USAF Airmen of Note was a great collaboration, which I would love to see again. The Airmen will be back in December for their annual holiday concert. Tickets for that show were being distributed after the concert. Judging by the line, I think it will be another sell out.