I didn’t love the last album by the Jeni Fleming Trio. My review of Someday, Sometime earlier this year was unpopular among the trio’s fans, most of whom are settled in the group’s Bozeman home-base and stretch from there in a steadily increasing throng across the rest of Montana, but I still stand behind the assessment. The album seemed to be missing something—either an edge, or, in keeping with the trio’s pristinely performed jazz standards, perhaps a bit of the same blinding sheen of their previous three releases. It wasn’t poor in any way, just not as memorable as their best work. It was too much of the same.
So it came as a surprise when my stereo shuffled to the Jeni Fleming Trio’s latest effort. From the lead-off track—Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”—the sound was unmistakable, mostly because Jeni’s crystalline voice is impossible to miss, murmuring, purring and expanding as it does in subtle turns throughout uncluttered arrangements. Her voice has always been that way, distinctly glamorous and gorgeous and humble, but this time it sounded different. She was surrounded. And not just by husband Jake on guitar and Chad Langford on bass, but also by the String Orchestra of the Rockies. It was a grand sound supporting Jeni’s centerpiece vocals, and it surprised me only because it couldn’t have been further from what either group has done in the past.
The Jeni Fleming Trio and the String Orchestra of the Rockies’ recently released collaboration, We’ll Be Together Again, requires an adjustment. It can’t be compared to the more stripped-down acoustic efforts of the trio’s past. Bolstered by SOR, this new CD is a time machine, a classy vehicle straight out of 1950s Vegas. It’s not smoky basement jazz so much as a black-tie ballroom affair. It requires a martini and a bit of swing. It contains versions of Burt Bacharach and Duke Ellington and invokes images of the Rat Pack and Ella Fitzgerald. Or, if you need a more contemporary retro reference, it could be the soundtrack to the next Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney black-and-white film, like Dianne Reeves in Good Night, and Good Luck.
“It’s a throwback, really,” says Jeni in a recent interview from Billings, one of the seven statewide concert stops in support of the new CD; the tour reaches Hamilton Friday, Dec. 15, and Missoula the following evening. “We wanted to do something in the tradition of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do and finally we had the chance.”
That chance was dependent upon an adjustment even more significant than that required of listeners. SOR, which is a collection of accomplished musicians from throughout the state, many of whom teach at either the University of Montana or Montana State, has a 22-year tradition of performing in Montana. And during exactly none of that time has the organization ever ventured beyond the comfy confines of classical music. But a suggestion over dinner last year between Jake and Jeni Fleming and SOR Artistic Director Johan Jonsson set the wheels in motion.
“I thought they would come in and be our soloists for a concert, that sort of thing,” says Jonsson, who’s also the head of MSU’s music department. “But they took this idea and ran with it. Things I never even dared think about started to happen, all over an innocent dinner conversation.”
The trio not only proposed recording an album, but also suggested it be done in a studio in Nashville, Tenn. In addition to arranging versions of classics, Jake Fleming and Langford both created original pieces, and then pulled in renowned Montana composer Eric Funk and big-band leader Glen Johnson to contribute. In order to put it all together, the 15-person orchestra had to fly to Nashville for three days of intensive studio sessions, not to mention embrace an entirely different genre of music. Before recording, only one day was set aside for rehearsal.
“We’d never recorded with a vocalist before, never played this style, and we had to swing, which an orchestra is not accustomed to doing,” says violinist Margaret Baldridge, an associate music professor at UM and SOR member since 1992. “And physically, we were in a different setup, in a circle with headphones on and listening to click tracks with a conductor—and we’ve never had a conductor before. The whole experience was different.”
“It’s been exciting for us, to stretch a little bit,” says bassist Don Beller, also a UM music professor and member of SOR since its inception. “But there was no hesitation from the group. We’re all very interested in music, especially when it is well done. This is music done well.”
If there was any apprehension, it came from Jonsson.
“I kept telling [Jake and Jeni], ‘You’re nuts. You’re crazy. This will never work. You’re dreaming.’ But they kept finding ways to make it happen,” he says. “They kept taking the project to new levels.”
The early returns show that the collaboration and SOR’s risk are paying huge dividends. The opening weekend of concerts in Bozeman Dec. 1 and 2 saw unprecedented sales of SOR’s previous recordings; by intermission of their Great Falls concert Dec. 9, their entire stock—nearly 200 CDs—had sold out.
“It’s been very catalytic for us,” says SOR board President Phil West. “There’s been an excitement I’ve never seen before. Exposure to new audiences is something we hoped for, but we’re seeing real returns. It’s dollars. Not a lot, but revenue streams that are completely new for us.”
More than anything, both SOR and the trio now have a new CD that should expand their respective audiences. While We’ll Be Together Again is clearly a showcase for Jeni—as are all the trio’s recordings—there are also moments that highlight the orchestra’s musicianship. Many of the string intros were tailored specifically for SOR, as were interludes such as the two-minute instrumental section in the title track. Both the trio and SOR come out sounding reinvigorated and revitalized.
“We’ve all had to adapt, but I think it’s a testament to the talent around us that it’s gone off so well,” Jeni says. “For me, it’s the first time I’ve ever performed with an orchestra, and there’s a lot of pressure. Singing with the orchestra, it’s almost like I’m floating. It’s different than anything we’ve done before, but it’s something I think we’re certain to do again.”
The Jeni Fleming Trio and String Orchestra of the Rockies perform Friday, Dec. 15, at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center ($16 in advance/$18 at the door) and Saturday, Dec. 16, at UM’s University Theatre ($20/$18 students).