By Nancy Raskauskas, The Gazette Times Entertainer
July 30, 2011

cov02_hilltop2The Central Park Gazebo can barely contain the Hilltop Big Band within its quaint railings and octagonal roof, and it certainly can’t contain its swinging sound

The group plays big band, jazz and swing, as well as Latin beats such as tangos, mambos and cha chas.

Expect a bit of improvisation and plenty of adept solos when the group gets together. But, although the group has a casual vibe, its members are by no means winging it. In fact, the band knows about 460 songs, almost more sheets of music than can fit in their folders.

“And, we’re constantly learning new tunes,” baritone sax player Mel Garcia said on a recent evening in the park. He’s a fan of songs by the great jazz bassist and civil rights activist Charles Mingus and Gordan Goodwin of The Big Phat Band.

“No one else around here plays those charts,” he said.

Garcia has been with the Hilltop Big Band since 1995 and the sax player has been playing for decades longer – since he was 28. “I struggled the first few years I was in this band,” Garcia said. “It was the first band that I’d ever been in where I had to read music.”

Strong mentors within the band and an ever-changing set list have kept him interested over the years.

At the first concert of the summer on June 22, about 50 people gathered to hear a lineup of songs that included everything from George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” to “The Dirty Boogie,”a track from The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Trombone player Jinny Tanner has played since the sixth grade, and been with the band nearly since the beginning, joining up in 1988 when the band was still practicing in a garage on a hill overlooking Philomath – a rehearsal arrangement that inspired the name of the group.

“It’s really fun and it grows, it changes. We used to play ‘oldy moldys’ and now it’s gotten more modern,” she said, while joking that still only brings the band’s repertoire up to the 1950s and’60s.

Her favorite songs on the June 22 lineup were “High Five” and“Tall Cotton” by Sammy Nestico and a Pete Myers arrangement of “Love for Sale.”

Bill Veley plays electric bass for Hilltop. He’s also a member of numerous local bands including Webster Chicago, Formerly Hines and RiverRocks.

“Some of our music looks like the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s pretty old,” he agreed. Still, there’s always a part for him and “a lot of improv in solo time,” which keeps him coming back.

Trombone player Kathleen Smith, a band teacher for Lebanon schools who has been with the group for 15 years, said that Hilltop feels like a family.

“It’s the good and the bad altogether – mostly good,” she said.“I’m just thrilled that there’s a jazz band to play with in town.”

Retired Crescent Valley High School band director Scott Janes, a trumpet player, also adds to the group’s wealth of talented players.

During concerts there’s no director, but rather the group leads itself from within, with lead trombone player Tom Brunch counting off beats at the start and sax player Nathan Boal signaling the final note from the front row.

Other regulars in the band include Mike Huntington, Stuart Curtis, Don Phillips, John Park, Larry Landis, Kim Jones, Vicki Baker, Sherri Bird, Kevin Kovalchik and Doug Bateman.

The band plays every other Wednesday in the summertime. Bring a lawn chair or a blanket at 7:30 p.m. on July 6 for the next chance to bask in their beats.

In the wintertime, the band retreats to the equally cozy stage of the Old World Deli, where it plays first Fridays October through May.

This month, the Hilltop Big Band will also play in Albany’s Mondays @ Monteith concert series from 7 to 9 p.m. July 25. The group also takes private gigs such as weddings, dances and business functions.


The Gazette Times Entertainer
September 3, 2008

cov01_hilltopThe Hilltop Big Band has made music and community for the past 20 years.

CORVALLIS — Mel Garcia remembers quite clearly when the Hilltop Big Band got started. It was 1988, and he had placed an ad in the paper looking for other musicians wanting to start a rock band. He couldn’t help but notice that another Mel, Mel Hilbert, had also placed an ad, his looking for horn players to start a big band with.

Garcia ended up recruiting a bassist and drummer, and started the Moonlighters, a trio that, with his saxophone, performed music by the Bill Black Combo, the trio of musicians that had backed Elvis Presley before he made the jump to Hollywood.

About three years later, the Moonlighters were kaput, but in 1995, when Garcia was looking for another musical outlet, he happened upon the band that had resulted from Hilbert’s ad, The Hilltop Big Band. The group was named after the property in Philomath where the band first practiced, which was located on the top of a hill.

Garcia soon joined on second alto sax, then worked his way up to first tenor, eventually trading with fellow band member Mike Huntington for the position of baritone saxophone.

Now, 13 years later, Garcia and the band are still going strong, performing every other Wednesday during the summer at the gazebo in Central Park. The band played its last gig of the summer Wednesday, Sept. 2, but don’t worry if you missed them.

Come Friday, Oct. 3, the Hilltop Big Band will resume performing on the first Friday of each month at Old World Deli, a schedule it will keep up through May.

While the name might imply that the repertoire consists of what people consider big band standards, the Hilltop Big Band’s material runs from Glen Miller and Count Basie to Stevie Wonder, the Average White Band and even some Brazilian jazz. All told, the band  has about 400 songs in its book, although it’s constantly rotating through them.

“We rotate through them to keep ourselves interested, to keep from getting bored,” Garcia says. Keeping 18 to 20 musicians interested can be a bit of a challenge, especially when each has his or her own musical tastes.

The band also is made up of an array of individuals in terms of age and profession, and has included an oncologist, an architect, a Hewlett-Packard printer technician and an Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

The band first landed its Central Park gig when it made a deal with the city. In exchange for getting to use the band room at Cheldelin Middle School as a practice space, it puts on the free public concerts.

The band also performs at private parties and other social events. Mel says that some of the most entertaining experiences playing with the band have come out of these performances.

He remembers one night at the Odd Fellows Hall, the band was really cooking and several couples had gathered to dance near the stage. One of the trombone players leaned over and pointed that one of the women dancers was getting particularly enthusiastic, and he said just two words, “black panties.”

The woman was jumping and jiving and her short skirt would flutter around her waist. Within seconds the murmured words had spread throughout the band, causing a musical train wreck as everybody broke up in laughter.

Of course, the real reason the Hilltop Big Band has stayed together all these years is for the music. Listening to Garcia describe the “rich harmonies” that are possible when a mass of horns gets together, it’s easy to see why these men and women would take so many nights out of their lives to play for very little money.

“The Big Band is just an ensemble that has typically five saxes, four ’bones, four trumpets and a rhythm section. That’s a big band.”

“A horn can only play one note at a time, but you put them all together, and each one is playing a different part of the chord, and it just sounds wonderful, it’s a big full sound. I love being in the middle of it and listening to it going on all around me.

Other regular members of the band include: Huntington, Ron Koken, Don Philips, Nathan Boal, John Parks, Kathy Smith, Tom Bruch, Jinny Tanner, Vicky Baker, Kim Jones, Larry Landis, Scott Janes, Sherri Bird, Cherri Gullerud, Lori Moss, Doug Bateman, Tom Groves and Darren Volbeda.

Comments are closed.