joemuccioliconductBandleader and Jazz Arts Project founder Joe Muccioli keeps bringing bigger names to town, including Marlene VerPlanck, below. (Click to enlarge)

marleneverplanckSince 2006, the Red Bank-based  Jazz Arts Project has been serving up what founder and borough resident Joe Muccioli calls “straight-ahead, swinging, classic jazz.”

But over the life of the nonprofit’s Summer Jazz Café series, now in its fifth year, there’s also been something of a subtle evolution happening, says the bandleader known to fans and players around the globe as ‘Joe Mooch.’

“Every year, we seem to be able to attract a little bit higher-echelon performers,” he tells redbankgreen. “We’ve been drawing more from national acts and acts that tour internationally.

“Our followers are starting to understand that whenever we bring in an artist, he or she is a top-flight act, even if they’ve never heard of them.”

The summer, the series has taken up residence in the “black box” Marion Huber Theater space at Two River Theater, offering a schedule of five weekends on which five select artists perform both Friday and Saturday nights.

This weekend, the  program reaches its midpoint with appearances by singer Marlene VerPlanck, who the New York Times once said “may be the most accomplished interpreter of popular material performing today.”

Not that many consumers would make the link, but millions of Americans heard VerPlanck sing ad ditties for Campbell’s Soup years ago (“Mm-mm good, mm-mm good, that’s what Campbell’s Soups are…”)

But VerPlanck got her start in the big-band business as a young vocalist with Charlie Spivak and Tex Beneke. During a brief stint with the last Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, she met her future husband, musician-arranger Billy VerPlanck, who died last year.

VerPlanck went solo in the 1970s, and over the years, she’s been one of the nation’s busiest studio singers, backing up vocalists ranging from Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme to Kiss. But she’s also appeared at Carnegie Hall, Michael’s Pub and the Rainbow Room to rave notices, and continues to win critical acclaim on tours across North America and Western Europe, as well as for her CDs.

The following weekend, July 30 & 31, the series highlights saxophonist and composer Wayne Escoffery; and for the final weekend, August 6 & 7, drummer (and club owner) Cecil Brooks III brings his skins to town. All performances begin at 8p.

The series also has an educational component to it. Most Saturday afternoons during the schedule, the star performers put on youth workshops to which music students of all ages are invited in to get pointers on their craft.

“The artists will work with whomever shows up,” says Mooch, who sees the program not only as a way to ignite the flame of great future performers, but to help create a base of future jazz fans.

“Suddenly, their world opens up, even if they don’t become players past high school,” he says.

Tickets to the Summer Jazz Series shows are $20 apiece ($10 for students) at the theater box office (732.345.1400) or online. Seating is café-style, with candles on tables and coffee, tea and treats available.