MURRAY — The last time the 18-piece powerhouse known as Todd Hill and His Orchestra played in front of a live audience was Jan. 25, 2020.
So, to say the least, its namesake and the musicians that have made this group one of the most popular swinging jazz bands in the southeastern United States the past more than 35 years are ready to play again. Their wait, prompted by the dastardly COVID-19 pandemic, is about to end.
The Hill group will return to live performances Sunday afternoon and the place for this comeback is probably appropriate. It is the town where the group was born and bred — Murray.
“We’re just glad to be up and going again,” said Hill, whose group will take the stage of the Rotary Club of Murray Amphitheater Performing Arts Pavilion inside Central Park at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. “It’s just a lovely thing and it’s going to be a great time for everyone, especially now that everybody is able to get out and do things again.
“Plus, (Sunday’s venue) is a beautiful facility and it’s in a beautiful setting. Everybody should be grateful in Murray and Calloway County that we’re able to have that facility.”
Hill founded the band during his freshman year at Murray State University in 1982; he has since returned to his alma mater to teach as a music professor, primarily in the jazz genre. Back in ’82, the group was a much smaller outfit but, within a year, was at its current size. Since then, the band has appeared at numerous high-profile events, which is ironic, because Sunday’s performance will serve as a practice session for one of those events.
For its second gig of 2021, the Todd Hill Orchestra will appear at the prestigious Great American Brass Festival the following week in Danville.
“We played for them on the 30th anniversary year of 2019. Since then, they’ve tried to rebook us three different times,” Hill said. “When they called this year and asked us to go up there, we were very honored. They’re only bringing in a couple of paid acts and they’ve told us that they chose us because we’re an audience favorite.”
Along with being the band’s composer, Hill also handles piano and vocals. Drummer John Madole has been with Hill since the fall of 1983 and Hill said longtime member Derek Jones, six years Hill’s junior and an alto saxophone/clarinet player, has been his principal music collaborator since 1987, when Jones was still in high school.
The vast majority of the band either attended Murray State or resides in Murray.
“Derek is just a great guy and a scary musician,” Hill said of Jones. “Taylor Grady (tenor sax) is a native of Murray. In fact, he was one of Derek’s students at (Calloway County High School, where Jones is band director). He now lives in Belleville, Illinois. Andy Johnson (baritone sax) just graduated from Murray State last year and is working on his master’s at Ball State (Muncie, Indiana).
“Then, you’ve got Todd French (trombone) who teaches at Murray State and we’ve got two other recent Murray State students —Hunter Moffitt, who just finished a master’s degree at Texas State and Daniel Cupp (trombone) who is finishing his master’s at (the University of Kentucky in Lexington). Tony Brown (another trombonist) has lived here a long time.
“Among our trumpet players, we’ve got a Murray resident — Adam Fisher — and Brent Webster is a guitar teacher at Murray State and he’s our guitar guy with the band. Then you’ve got G.R. Davis (concert bass player from the Nashville,Tennessee area), who got his degrees from North Alabama and Indiana University, yet his high school band director was a Murray State graduate.
“What’s funny is that this all ties back to Murray State in some way or another and we have an incredible number of them in the band.”
As far as rehearsing, Hill said the first time his group plays notes together will probably be in the minutes leading to the concert. Then again, this is not an unusual thing for this group, being many of its members now reside well away from Murray.
“I think the last rehearsal we had was in 1984,” he said, breaking into strong laughter. “Now, one thing we did a couple of years ago that really helped, and I’m real thankful we did this now, we had made PDF copies of the music that we send to everybody and they are able to keep playing and practicing on their own.
“Zoom doesn’t work. The timing doesn’t work. I did work with the Kentucky All-State Jazz Band this year, and it was weird. The distance between here and, say, Ashland is pretty pronounced. It took about six seconds for what a student was playing there to get back to me.”
Hill said Sunday’s show will consist of 23 songs that will cover the gambit of swinging jazz greats, such as Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Count Basie and songs that made Frank Sinatra’s voice so famous. There will be no admission charge, but the audience will be asked to contribute to a love offering for the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir Student Scholarship Fund.
In the event of rain, the concert will be moved to FUMC.