Another world–class big band? Yes, it really is — and this one’s from Toronto, Canada, home of the renowned Boss Brass, several of whose alumni are on hand to make sure the phrase “world–class” is entirely appropriate. Commander–in–chief Brigham Phillips, who moved to Toronto from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1981, says he’d been planning the album for almost ten years, and his diligence and patience were amply rewarded once the roadblocks had been pushed aside and the band gathered in a studio. And It Really Was is a sterling enterprise from start to finish, enlivened by Phillips’s radiant charts and impressive blowing by ensemble and soloists alike. While our own tendency is to favor the friskier numbers (“Foots Bay Boogie,” “Blowhead,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbi–Q,” “Blues for Val”), there’s no letdown elsewhere with handsome arrangements of “Flight East,” “Lush Life,” “Gentle Touch” and “Irish Cream” complementing John McDermott’s three vocals. The album’s cryptic title refers to a favorite expression of Phillips’s friend and former lead alto, the late Keith Jollimore, to whom the picturesque thirteen–minute finale is dedicated. The toe–tapping curtain–raiser, “Boogie,” introduces the listener to the band’s muscular drummer, Mark Kelso, and accommodates shimmering solos by trombonist Terry Promane and Phillips, wearing his trumpeter’s hat. The mid–tempo rocker, “Flight East,” encircling eloquent statements by flutist Verne Dorge and (muted) trumpeter Steve McDade, precedes tenor saxophonist Mike Murley’s opulent feature, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” “Blowhead,” a sixteen–bar blues on which Phillips mans the keyboard, swings Basie–fashion from the downbeat with guitarist Tony Zorzi, trombonist Alastair Kay and tenor Perry White adding spice and Kelso goading the band’s brawny rhythm section. “Gentle Touch” is tailor–made for the warm flugel of Guido Basso, a longtime standout with the Boss Brass. Other BB alumni are trumpeters McDade and John MacLeod, trombonist Kay and French hornist James MacDonald. Basso, Murley, McDade and Terry Promane are members of the Rob McConnell Tentet while the Promane brothers and White also perform with Canada’s “other” leading ensemble, the Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra. Everyone has a good time on the Dixie–flavored samba “Struttin’ with Some Barbi–Q,” especially Kelso, Zorzi (on banjo), soloists Dorge (clarinet), Phillips and Terry Promane, and the brass section (which contributes a breathtaking soli). Brother Mark Promane’s alto seasons the appetizing “Irish Cream”; Phillips (piano), MacLeod, McDade and Murley brighten the shuffling “Blues for Val.” Dorge’s plaintive alto introduces the sprawling “And It Really Was” whose mournful opening passages give way to a celebratory second section with ardent statements by Phillips, Zorzi, Basso, Kay, Dorge, Kelso and baritone Chris Mitchell. We’ve not said much about McDonald’s vocals, as there’s not much to say except that he has a pleasant voice, good presence and sings on key. Unhappily, he has chosen two songs (“I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “Put Your Dreams Away”) associated with Sinatra, another (“Mona Lisa”) with Nat Cole, and suffers by comparison. But as band singers go he’s better than average. As for the band, it’s about as good as can be, as one would expect from such seasoned professionals. That’s not simply idle chatter — it really is.
Contact: EMI Music Canada, 3109 American Drive, Mississauga, Ontario L4V 1B2, Canada.
Track Listing: The Foots Bay Boogie; Flight East; Lush Life; Blowhead; I Fall in Love Too Easily; Gentle Touch; Struttin’ with Some Barbi–Q; Put Your Dreams Away; Irish Cream; Blues for Val; Mona Lisa; And It Really Was (77:55).
Personnel: Brigham Phillips, conductor, arranger, piano, trumpet; Verne Dorge, Mark Promane, alto sax, flute, clarinet; Mike Murley, Perry White, tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Chris Mitchell, baritone sax, clarinet; Jason Logue, Steve McDade, John MacLeod, Guido Basso, trumpet, flugelhorn; Alastair Kay, Terry Promane, Gord Myers, Gene Smith (7, 9), trombone; Doug Gibson, bass trombone, tuba; James MacDonald, French horn; Tony Zorzi, guitar, banjo; Bill Bridges (11), nylon guitar; Patrick Kilbride, electric, acoustic bass; Mark Kelso, drums, percussion; John McDermott (5, 8, 11), vocals.