The U.S. Navy Band Commodores, the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble, stopped in Pensacola on October 24 as part of their 2023 national tour. Prior to their show that evening at the Saenger Theatre, four of their members - MUC Andrew Francisco (saxophone), MU1 Alexandra Albrecht (trumpet), MU1 David Hagee (trombone), and MU1 William Ledbetter (bass) - sat down with me to give a bit of background and context to their musical journeys.
The Commodores were formed in 1969 with a mission that includes public concerts, ceremonial support in honoring veterans, jazz education classes and clinics, and protocol performances for high-level military and civilian government officials. While all 18 members of the group audition for the privilege of joining, each member’s journey to being a professional jazz musician is different. Some, like MU1 Albrecht, grew up playing jazz from an early age as part of a family history of musicians; others, like MU1 Hagee, were focused on other styles like classical performance before the opportunity to join the Commodores came up. Their early musical influences are similarly varied, including everything from dedicated and talented teachers (MU1 Hagee) to James Brown and blues musicians (MU1 Ledbetter) to Michael Jackson (an influence mentioned by both MUC Francisco and MU1 Ledbetter); for some, their love for a particular instrument was triggered in a moment - hearing an array of trumpeters play a fanfare during the 1998 Olympics (MU1 Albrecht), or watching Tom playing upright bass in an old Tom & Jerry cartoon (MU1 Ledbetter). When it comes to the types of music on their playlists, they seem to have two things in common - it’s gotta be funky, and a lot of it isn’t mainstream; check out groups like Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles or Moonchild to get a taste.
When it came time to hit the stage, the Commodores came out swinging with the patriotism, starting with Anchors Away followed by the Star Spangled Banner. Many of the songs that followed were either written or arranged by various members of the band, including an original composition by MUCS Robert Holmes entitled Back East. The music was polished and energetic, and the solos were exquisite. Throughout the show, vocalist MU1 Kristine Hsia and drummer MU1 Kevin McDonald served as narrators, interspersing information about the history of the band and some of the notable musicians who have been a part of the Navy's history as well as introducing the various songs and members of the band.
The set list for the bulk of the show, pulled from a vast library of songs ranging from big band to jazz vocal arrangements to new instrumental pieces the band chooses from to compile each show, kept the audience thoroughly engaged throughout - Red Wagon, Yes or No, Royal Garden Blues, Back East, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Save Your Love For Me, Eternal Father, and My Centennial.
As the evening wound to a close, the Commodores returned to their patriotic roots with Stars and Stripes Forever, featuring some brilliant piccolo playing from MU1 Amanda Ballantine. The Armed Forces Medley followed, during which the house lights were raised and members and veterans of each branch were invited to stand and be recognized as their branch's song was played. America the Beautiful closed the show.
While their 2023 tour has moved on to other cities across the nation, keep an eye out for future events featuring the Commodores! Their shows absolutely do not disappoint, and each patron at the Saenger walked out with a smile on their face. Go Navy!