Resonance Big Band: Hymn to Freedom/John Brown's Body

On May 12, Resonance Records released its long-awaited tribute to Oscar Peterson. In his ongoing fight to preserve mainstream jazz as a viable, contemporary art form, studio head George Klabin has produced a stunning album, a summit meeting which may prove to be his Angincourt.  Leading the charge is the astounding Romanian-born pianist Marian Petrescu, an avid disciple of Peterson, who sadly passed into history in 2007.

Opening with a reverent, gospel-tinged stride piano, Petrescu's solo interpretation of "Hymn to Freedom" is gradually supported with reeds and flute.  Driven by the solid back beat of LaBarbera, the full band swings a bluesy "John Brown's Body," with soulful, Petersonesque improvisation from Petrescu and an enthusiastic, over-the-top scat guitar solo from Öberg.  Trombones trade fours before the whole ensemble takes its final chorus.  The superb arrangement by Bill Cunliffe is lively, listenable and uplifting — the kind of big band jazz which used to rule the airwaves and may yet again, if George Klabin wins his campaign.  Once more into the breach, my friends!

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Phobos

Jazz big bands don't just need lots of charts, plenty of swing and a reliable bus to take them from gig to gig. They also rely on a guiding metaphor. In the old days, the ruling metaphor was a military one: the different sections of the band engaged in battle, and the arrangements were built on a constant thrust and parry between trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm. This approach no doubt derived from the counterpoint of New Orleans jazz, and reflected the larger bands' attempts to capture the excitement of a style of music in which different melodic temperaments constantly countered one another. The next defining metaphor came with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, which thought of itself as a choir. This band put aside combating sections in favor of a brisk, holistic approach based on the blending of disparate voices. "Make love, not war," it proclaimed, and the contrast with the previous big band tradition could not have been more stark.

And Darcy James Argue? His role model is neither an army or a choir. Rather, he seems to want to make his Secret Society to inhabit the sound terrain and mental space of a rock band. For long stretches at a time here, this large ensemble sounds like a small, intense unit, driven by a rhythm section that is so far away from the Count Basie-Walter Page-Jo Jones tradition, one struggles to establish any genealogy that gets you from there to here. When the sound gets bigger, it does so in such a natural, organic way that you hardly notice the other 12 musicians sneaking into the recording studio. Like a rock band, the Secret Society delights in big, assertive ideas. Things stretch out and take their own sweet time—again reminding me of some garage-bred musical concoction. "Phobos" lasts more than eleven minutes, and there are three other tracks on the CD that are roughly the same duration. Yet this rugged let-it-rip aesthetic is beefed up by a rich harmonic palette that you won't find at any rock concert.

One can certainly identify influences from other jazz artists, especially Maria Schneider. Many of the textures come out of the Miles-Gil-Maria playbook. But what Argue does with them is something else. This is fresh and non-derivative work, and justifies the intense buzz surrounding this bandleader's debut release.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Russ Spiegel: The Rub

I love the way this track starts off, with a bunch of horns sort of swaying back and forth, mashing and melting a single tone off its center. The sound is almost animalistic, and makes you think something even more ominous is about to come along. Curiously, that's not what happens. Instead, Russ Spiegel's orchestra launches into some huge, swelling chords that set up the rest of the composition. There are some shattering crescendos and inspired horn work, particularly David Smith's blistering trumpet solo.

Ah, but the guitar nerd in me was waiting for leader and guitarist Russ Spiegel to step out. Sure enough, Spiegel does not disappoint. Here he sounds quite a bit like Pat Metheny, not so much in tone but in his tendency to employ very long melodic lines. It's a lot of fun to follow one that bridges both quiet sections and raucous horn swells. Very promising stuff.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Jentsch Group Large: Route 666

The best instrumental music tells the listener a story. You might not pull in its entire meaning at first, but the initial presentation is cohesive, with nothing feeling out of place. What amazes me about this is that the piece of music can have many chaotic features, misdirections, and surprises and still have no trouble retaining a sense of purpose.

"Route 666" starts right off with a bit of misdirection – the fusion-drenched electric guitar sounding more like Alan Holdsworth meets Robert Fripp. My ears were thinking, "Where's the big band?" Well, just like that, the electric guitar morphs into a giant horn section and we're off into another space, like a musical version of a William S. Burroughs jump cut. These kind of shifts continue (though maybe not so drastic) continue on for the next 18 minutes or so. It's a truly thrilling and textured ride that reminds me of the work of both Carla Bley and Frank Zappa. Best of all, it really does tell a story.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Claude Thornhill: Snowfall

In the early 1940s, the opposite of "hot jazz" wasn't "cool jazz." The term "cool jazz" didn't exist at the time. A jazz fan at the time would have told you that the sweet bands were the antithesis of the hot swing orchestras. These sweet ensembles specialized in the tepid and sentimental, and didn't put much faith in cookin' tenor solos and smokin' chase choruses.

But how do we fit Claude Thornhill into this binary opposition? Jazz didn't get any more ethereal or mood-oriented than "Snowfall," his signature song. This is closer to Debussy than to Duke Ellington, and yet there is a ineffable quality at the heart of this music that resists assimilation into the sweet Guy Lombardo-ish camp. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. These linkages would become even more apparent when the Thornhill band reformed after World War II. Gil Evans, who would serve as Thornhill's arranger, summed up the ethos of this music best when he commented: "The sound hung like a cloud."

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment


Bobby Sanabria: Wild Jungle

Blistering! Good gawd! If you want to listen to this music I would suggest the following precautions: apply a good layer of sunscreen (at least SPF 35), wear at least two pairs of underwear (I'll explain later), make sure you're properly hydrated (Sure, nobody has ever been hospitalized because of being exposed to a single jazz composition, but do you really want to take the chance? At your age?), and make sure you've had plenty of rest beforehand.

I'm no physics expert but I'd say that there's a fair chance burning rays will be developed when "Wild Jungle" is released into the local environment. Between the percussion antics of Cuban-born conga legend Candido, the trumpet solo ripped by Michael Taylor, and the white hot, insane lines exploding from the horn section, there's a decent chance that your clothing may spontaneously combust. If that happens, you don't really need to thank me for the duplicate underwear idea. I'm just looking out for the safety of jazz fans everywhere. Please pass the Coppertone.

May 05, 2009 · 1 comment


Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra: Brush Fire

Against impossible odds, the Detroit jazz scene remains hot and continues to forge world-class players and ensembles. In the thick of it all you will find 34-year-old composer/pianist/author/educator Scott Gwinnell, who has played with heavy hitters from Joe Lovano to Dave Liebman as well as most of Motor City’s jazz elite. His orchestra performs regularly at one of Detroit’s swankiest watering holes, the ultra-classy Cliff Bells. Their second release, Brush Fire, offers moments of genuine spontaneous combustion, especially in the title track.

"Brush Fire" is a powerful, heady composition. After an opening Romanesque fanfare the head begs comparison to Freddie Hubbard’s "Intrepid Fox," though not quite as dark. Once the form straightens out into an uplifting samba for the solos, Keith Kaminski spreads his wings in a sprightly soprano flight, followed by neo-cool ruminations by trumpeter Justin Walter. A brief, almost melodic drum solo takes it back to the head, then out with Kaminski and Walter trading fours traded on the turnaround. Overall the band is tight, the spirited arrangement lean, listenable and balanced. Even those who are lukewarm on big band music should be sufficiently ignited by this brush fire.

May 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Gene Perla: I'm Popeye The Sailor Man

What began as an intimate session involving Elvin Jones and multi-instrumentalist Gene Perla back in 1986 culminated in the November, 2008 release of a unique (if somewhat controversial) album uniting archived tracks with Protools-enabled contemporary sessions involving members of North German Broadcasting’s NDR Big Band. The same outrage inspired by dead celebrities appearing in new commercials (John Wayne hawking Coors Beer, Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner, etc.) has surfaced in the wake (bad choice of words?) of Bill’s Waltz. To be deterred by all the brouhaha would be a pity, as there are some authentic moments of spontaneous combustion to be found on these sides, click track be damned!

"I’m Popeye the Sailor Man" may be an unlikely vehicle for a jazz session but, propelled by this legendary drummer's boundless energy, it runs downwind with a bone in its teeth. The track opens with Elvin’s popping snare tattooing a New Awlins- style march interpretation of the traditional sailor’s hornpipe, a theme which resurfaces throughout the arrangement, salted with tritones and arrgh-mented ninths. Leading with a respectable imitation of Popeye’s staccato laugh, trombonist Dan Gottshall delivers a satisfying, Olive Oyl-smooth solo, piloting through bluesy, spinach-free channels which never sound canned or Wimpy. Across the vast, improbable gulf of time and space the entire ensemble is held together and ignited by Jones’s unmistakable back beat, while the signature hornpipe theme takes its final bow with a drum solo tag.

Well, blow me down. Popeye aficionados are aware of the scruffy cartoon sailor’s scatting ability, but who knew he could swing?

April 26, 2009 · 1 comment


Bobby Sanabria: Congo Mulence

There is nothing quite like the excitement and sound that emanates from a finely tuned jazz orchestra. A big band will always follow in the shadows of the masters of the art that preceded them: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and in this case, Machito and The Afro-Cubans. There is no end to the mixed emotions of trepidation and awe that young musicians must feel when trying to be true to such a rich and daunting musical heritage. The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Bobby Sanbria, has carried on the tradition successfully with a remarkably tight orchestra that the masters would envy.

Playing to an obviously partisan crowd at their school auditorium, the excitement generated on this live album is palpable. The band is tremendously tight and the student musicians flow through the arrangements with an ease and professionalism that belies their age and experience.

The concert celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the original “Kenya” recording by Machito. Bobby Sanabria and the orchestra serve up a tasty Afro-Cuban dish on A.K. Salim’s blues-based “Congo Mulence”. The original recording featured Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto and Joe Newman on trumpet as soloists behind a bata rhythm. In this modernized version, arranger Joe Fielder uses a mambo superimposed with a bembè rhythm in 6/8 time at the intro. In front of a cha-cha rhythm, Anthony Stanco does an admirable job of playing in the lost style of the “dirty” sounding plunger-trumpet. A searing alto solo by the talented Justin Janer is played against the swaying rhythm of the band behind him. After a conga break, a Latin inspired up-tempo piano solo by Christian Sands is overlaid with precisely alternating brass and reed backgrounds in the big band tradition, building to a crescendo of sound that yields to a powerful tenor solo by Michael Davenport. A dynamic Edwards on drums and a fluid solo by Norris on bass along with a cacophony of clave, congas and bongo players keep the band in a rhythmic frenzy, followed by Sanabria on a conga backed timbale solo. The band pours it on in the last chorus and demonstrates a mastery of the complex twists and turns in the Fielder arrangement, which they execute flawlessly. At the coda, Stanco returns with a growled muted trumpet statement before removing the plunger and soaring in a high register punctuation in the finale.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Gil Evans: The Barbara Song

Gil Evans’ use of space, interesting combinations of instruments, and keen eye for talent are all in evidence on this track recorded in 1964. Using two French horns, trombone, tuba, flute, bass flute, English Horn, bassoon, and harp, with himself on piano, Gary Peacock on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Evans conjures a spooky stillness on this piece from Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera. The melody moves around the band, with each section of the piece featuring a different lead voice or section of the ensemble, with Evans’s piano commenting and complimenting before he drops out altogether. Shorter enters about halfway through the track, playing minimally and quietly, with suspense. It’s dark, subtly veiled music, showcasing Evans’s arranging abilities to their fullest.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir: The Saxophone Shop

Tenor saxophonist Odean Pope probably reached his widest audience as a member of drummer Max Roach's excellent '80s quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and bassist Calvin Hill. Pope has recorded a number of fine albums on his own, however, none more distinctive than The Saxophone Shop by his eight-saxes-plus-rhythm Saxophone Choir. The title track is a vamping, McCoy Tyner-esque Latin-tinged tune, with the eight saxes (three altos, four tenors, and bari) deployed like a big band. It's an very cooking performance from beginning to end. Pope's intricate composition and arrangement requires much precision, and the band is up to the task. The horns are tight, the rhythm section is skilled and forceful. Pope is always an incendiary soloist, and the high-energy rhythm section and backing saxes spur him to creative heights fantastic even by his extravagant standards. The arrangement is well-crafted, the performance inspired. An unusual concept, quite well-executed.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Les Brown: Leap Frog

Tenor saxophonist/arranger Joe Garland is best known for "In the Mood," which of course became the anthem of the swing era for better or worse. What many people do not know is that he submitted another one of his catchy riff-based pieces to Les Brown sometime in the mid-1940s. Les once said that it took about a year to get around to finally playing it, but once the band did, it was never out of the book. He recorded it for Columbia Records in 1945 and it was an immediate hit, so much so that Les made it his new theme.

Fast forward to 1951; Les leaves Columbia and signs with the new Decca Records subsidiary, Coral Records. His producer is Sonny Burke, one of his classmates at Duke University back in the '30s, and a fine arranger in his own right. Les re-records his theme with the band he later called his finest, and the performance is nothing short of fantastic. Even though the band had played the piece thousands of times, they still make it sound fresh, and as good as the Columbia studio sound is, the Coral is even better. Dave Pell's has a brief solo, but the band is clearly the star. Who wouldn't want to spend an evening listening and dancing to this powerhouse ensemble?

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Les Brown: Just a Gigolo

One of the great things about the study of an art form is that, in many cases, the cream finally rises to the top. For many years, it was easy to take the Les Brown band for granted; it played wherever Bob Hope turned up, whether on television or Viet Nam. It played local west coast gigs if it appeared live, and made a couple of albums a year through the sixties. But when Hope left the business and Brown's many recordings became available on CD, many of us took a long look and listen to what his band accomplished. He was known for introducing Doris Day, but he had many other vocalists who were excellent. His was a dance band first, but he always had top notch soloists, and he recorded high-powered jazz written by excellent arrangers. Added to that was the fact that he was a fine arranger himself, and never stopped writing for the band.

It would be interesting to know how he came to have a new version of "Just a Gigolo" in his book. This song first attained popularity in the United States back in 1931 and would become legendary as part of Louis Prima's Las Vegas act paired with "I Ain't Got Nobody." But in the hands of the Band of Renown, it starts with a piano intro, a statement of the melody in two and then four-beat, a bebop-laced vocal by novelty singer Stumpy Brown, a solo by Abe Most, an eight bar transition drenched in bop (Gozzo was a ringer in the trumpet section for this recording, and he is amazing as usual), and then a solo statement by bopper Pell. The band then takes over for a chorus, and we are reminded of the brilliance of arranger Skip Martin in this exciting and roaring transfiguration of a simple tune swinging mightily as if the band's life depended on its performance (one should also listen to Clarkson's solo; he is a highly underrated musician). The music ends with a highly dissonant chord that still seems perfect given what happened during the previous three minutes.

In the scheme of things, this is a relatively minor record, but if the minor performances are this good, many of the major recordings are stunning, and it makes perfect sense when modern big band historians now call Les Brown's ensemble one of the finest big bands of all time.

April 14, 2009 · 1 comment


Joe Williams: Night Time is the Right Time (to be with the One You Love)

Evaluating the relative merits of Joe Williams' recorded tracks with Count Basie in the '50's, as compared to those he sang with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1966, is a futile and nearly pointless endeavor. Basie's band was perhaps earthier, Jones/Lewis more modern in its charts, but the bottom line is that Williams' definitve, singular vocals were the key element to success in both cases.

Williams as a young man probably heard the earliest recorded versions of "Night Time is the Right Time" by Roosevelt Sykes and Big Bill Broonzy in the late '30's, and of course Ray Charles hit both the pop and R & B charts with it in 1958. Yet the tune probably got its widest exposure years later when the Huxtables lip-synched it on the very popular Cosby Show in 1985. "I want to warn you before we begin...if you stay out all night darlin', I declare that that will be the e-e-end," Williams intones conversationally over just bass, drums, and tinkling piano. The brass enter mournfully as Williams continues intimately: "Make an effort, baby." Wailing muted trumpet and swelling saxes set the stage for the climax, as Williams unleashes his full vocal power and the orchestra responds in kind. Williams becomes irresistibly personal and overwhelmingly beseeching (no longer threatening), bending syllables, bursting out in raw shrieks, and ending with an emphatic baritone note that evokes Billy Eckstine.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Sauter-Finegan Orchestra: Child's Play

For those who believe that this ensemble was not a jazz band, this track would probably be one of those cited. To this day, there are quite a few people who think that the Sauter-Finegan ensemble was a novelty band that had little or nothing to do with jazz. While it is true that RCA A&R man Dave Kapp had his eye on the bottom line (what A&R person doesn't) and novelty was the byword in pop music during this era, any time Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan got a group of musicians together to record their music was an opportunity for greatness. Both are among the finest American composers of the twentieth century, and when invited to write compositions of four-plus minutes to promote the 45 extended play format, they responded with some ambitious music.

Both "Horseplay" and "Child's Play" are rooted in a children's nursery tune, "Horseplay" is edgy; "Child's Play" is fun from beginning to end. Using such instruments as a toy piano, toy trumpet, woodwinds that sound like toys, muted brass and lots of percussion, this piece is pure Bill Finegan, displaying his puckish sense of humor, yet also showing his mastery of harmony and form. In fact, listening to both pieces cited is instructive, showing the differences and similarities in musical approach using the same tune. This was no mere novelty band; this was one of the great musical laboratories in ensemble music.

I can't help closing this review without citing a four-bar phrase that was used during the game show "Jeopardy" for many years. Those who remember the show during that time will surely smile when they hear this piece "Child's Play" for the first time, and remember when the curtain opened to reveal the categories that day. I've always wondered what Bill was paid for the use of this music.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


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