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By Ed Carney

For Americans growing up in the 1930s and '40s, big band music was the pop music of the day, and for those folks, it still evokes warm memories of swingin’ dance halls, wailing trombones, and youthful exuberance. While no longer claiming the commercial pop music bandwidth of today, big bands are still out there, and they’re playing a lot more than faithful Glenn Miller reproductions. These modern day big bands can still swing like the famous big bands did back in the day, but they also are performing exciting new music which is appealing and relevant to today's audiences.

Here in Michigan we are fortunate to have one of the top working big bands in the nation—the Paul Keller Orchestra (http://www.pkorecords.com/about.html) based in Ann Arbor. On Thursday February 10th, the "PKO" will bring its swingin', high-energy ensemble to Saginaw for a public concert at the Temple Theatre. Looking for a classy way to surprise your date with an early Valentine’s Day soiree? This could be just the ticket!

Led by bassist Paul Keller, the ensemble is comprised of four saxes, four trumpets, three trombones, and rhythm section. Keller is a warm, energetic and unpretentious guy, often referred to as "The House Bass Player for the State of Michigan," but who is also known nationally and has toured with notables, among them Dianna Krall. His musicians are some of the finest jazz players in the state with serious credentials of their own.

The group is an icon to Michigan jazz fans, having formed over 22 years ago as the "Bird of Paradise Orchestra," which held forth every Monday night for 13 years at the Bird of Paradise jazz club in Ann Arbor. When that AA landmark closed, the band adopted its current name and continued its Monday night tradition for another 8 years at Ann Arbor’s Firefly Club, and more recently at the Keystone Underground in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Remarkably, the band has performed over 1100 Monday night concerts over its 22-year history, and has missed less than ten Monday nights over that entire period. How’s that for dedication to the music?

Key members of the group include trumpeter Paul Finkbeiner ("The Iron Man") and saxophonist Paul Klinger, who in addition to Keller, contribute many original compositions and arrangements to the PKO book. Driving the rhythm section is drummer Pete Siers, who originally hails from Saginaw. For the Temple Theatre concert, the band will be joined by special guest vocalist Sunny Wilkinson (http:// www.sunnywilkinson.com/), who will sing on several tunes over the course of the night.

Asked how he keeps the music fresh and the band vibrant over all these years, Keller first gives credit to his band members, who clearly approach the PKO with the purest of motives—for the love of the music. He also refers to the band’s "ever-expanding repertoire," which now contains over 1000 charts. Then there is the element of surprise, which keeps the band on its toes at all times. For example, Keller indicated that the set list for the concert will not be revealed until the sound check on the afternoon of the concert. No worries, though, these seasoned musicians are ready for anything.

Finally, Keller keeps it fun for the band and the audience, striving for a "balance between written composition and improvisation." Often they will "flip the music over," start 'making up riffs" on the spot, and then "come back to the written music where they left off." The February 10th concert will most likely contain a sampling of traditional big band pieces from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and others, coupled with original compositions and arrangements.

I have heard the group many times, and the music is always accessible, diverse and fun, but never watered down. You don’t have to be a hard core jazz aficionado to enjoy it, but if you are, you’ll surely be satisfied as well.

Ticket prices range from $20-35, and showtime is 7:30pm. For more information, contact the Temple Theatre at 989-754-7469 or www.templetheatre.com.

© Ed Carney, 2011