The musical partnership between Jere Lantz and Shaun Johnson had an unlikely start.
“I came into the hall and saw a guy setting up mics and chairs, and then I was introduced to this guy and it was Shaun Johnson,” said Lantz, director of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. “He’s that kind of guy. I like working with someone who has his feet on the ground and his head in an artistic universe.”
That’s good, because Lantz and Johnson are working together on the Nov. 21 concert that combines the orchestra with the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience. It’s a relatively new undertaking for Johnson, best known as a singer with the a cappella group Tonic Sol-fa. His Big Band Experience has performed Christmas shows in recent years, but playing in front of a full orchestra is something different.
Johnson and his jazz band have done this once previously, with the South Dakota Symphony in Sioux Falls. “When there’s an orchestra behind you,” he said, “there’s nothing to describe it. It’s so inspiring.”
But even that Sioux Falls concert probably would not have happened without the assistance of Lantz and the Rochester symphony.
It all started last year when Johnson had some music charts for jazz band and orchestra arranged by Dean Sorenson, a jazz instructor at the University of Minnesota. Sorenson advised Johnson to go through the charts with a symphony before doing a concert. “He said, ‘You really have to find out what works and doesn’t work for the musicians,” Johnson said.
Sorenson suggested the Rochester symphony as a test orchestra. “So we went down there,” Johnson said. “It was an amazing exercise. It was so much fun to see Jere direct. He has so much passion.”
Johnson’s not the first to come up with the idea of combining a jazz band with an orchestra. “I love the sound of it,” he said. “But I don’t want to do it if you can’t bring something to it that’s your own. Take some songs people don’t expect.”
For instance, Johnson’s jazz band will play the theme from “Spider-Man” with the orchestra. “That’s a different piece for a big band to do, but definitely something different for an orchestra to do,” Johnson said.
They’ll also do a more traditional Billie Holiday piece, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet.”
“We do pieces from the ’30s and pieces from less than five years ago,” Johnson said.