The Savannah River Sessions offer an unusual twist on big band music.
Held once a month at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa's Aqua Star restaurant, these programs highlight the talents of band leader Jeremy Davis and the Fabulous Equinox Orchestra with singer Clay Johnson and a host of local musicians.
"Everything we've done has been a slick, polished production," Davis says. "This is very informal in a couple of different ways.
"This is not the slick, polished show we take on the road and we don't dress up as much. We wear coats, but it's informal dress.
"But the biggest difference is that this 18-piece big band will be completely sight-reading every single note," he says. "I'm going to tell the audience, 'You're going to have a great time tonight, and it's going to be something special.'"
The next session, set for March 24, will give fans the opportunity to see the orchestra at work while also hearing top-notch American Songbook classics.
"I spent a month figuring out what is going to work," Davis says. "Doing this is very different and requires some level of conversation beforehand."
A tenor saxophone player, Davis' orchestra is a big band with a repertoire that ranges from the Rat Pack, Michael Buble and Andy Williams to Ray Charles, Elvis and Johnny Cash.
Johnson was raised in a family of Southern gospel singers. He and Davis are lifelong friends originally from the Louisiana Delta who have done hundreds of shows together.
The orchestra is best known for its full-fledged musical showcase, or as Davis calls it, "The Rat Pack meets 'The Dean Martin Variety Show' with a touch of 'A Prairie Home Companion.'"
Based in Savannah, the orchestra is popular throughout the United States.
"We're coming off an epic time for us," Davis says. "We've just finished a week in New York City and are going back this summer.
"We'll be at the House of Blues in Chicago at the end of month, which is a major venue, one of the places everyone wants to play," he says. "We've played the one in New Orleans."
The orchestra also recently toured to Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana and will soon go to Las Vegas.
"We have really got some cool stuff going on," Davis says. "Clay and I have a trip to India scheduled in April.
"We have a missionary friend there, so we are going to do some humanitarian things and also play music. Music is a universal language."
While 2013 was great, 2014 is panning out to be even better.
"I can't remember a time in my musical career that was more cool," Davis says. "We have some amazing things on the horizon. The year has already been good to us."
So far, five Savannah River Sessions have been presented at the Westin.
"We're trying to grow the audience that comes," Davis says.
While the process is challenging for all orchestra members, Johnson really has his work cut out for him.
"The one in the hot seat is the singer," Davis says. "Some of the lyrics are written out with what looks like chicken scratch.
"Some were recently overhauled and put into a computer program so they're nice to read. But sometimes he has absolutely no clue."
With these sessions, failure is not only an option, it can be vastly entertaining.
"It's even better when Clay messes something up," Davis says. "I don't know any other singer who can do this as comfortably as Clay does."
Even after five weeks, people don't realize the performances are being presented.
"We really want the folks of Savannah to know this is a unique event in Savannah," Davis says. "As far as I can tell, there's never been anything like this in Savannah."
The March session will be special because it has an added educational component.
"We always like to share music," Davis says. "We've reached out to and been working with the Savannah Arts Academy Skylite Jazz Band.
"They are extremely talented. They're better than they've ever been as far as talent and how well they play.
"It's been a joy to work with them," he says. "They're going to open the show for us and play the first part of the night."
The show is free. A three-course dinner with dessert will be served at a cost of $35 per person.
"Chef Roger is one of the most talented chefs in town," Davis says. "Every month we've been there, we've been more impressed than the month before. It's such a cool night to hear music, eat dinner and see Savannah."
The monthly Savannah River Sessions aren't Davis' only Westin gig.
"I have recently inherited the Sunday brunch trio," he says. "Ben Tucker made it his home there for years.
"After he died, they didn't make any changes for six months. But six weeks ago, they asked me to lead it.
"That is such a huge honor," Davis says. "I have dearly loved my time there already."
Currently, the Westin hosts the Coastal Jazz Association's monthly concerts and several VOICExperience events. The Westin is seeking ways to engage the public, Davis says.
"(General manager) Mark Spadoni is a visionary guy," Davis says. "He is actively trying to create experiences for folks at the Westin and in Savannah.
"Folks don't see the Westin as a destination. He's trying to change that.
"I like to joke that the Talmadge Bridge is Savannah's Kilimanjaro," Davis says. "The Westin is a unique opportunity for the people of Savannah to enjoy their town like it's a resort. "Everything is first-class, and it's just a fun, fun night."