Awakening is a release from Concord's classical division, Concerto, and does it ever sound like one. It isn't quite "Wynton plays Handel," but here trumpeter Randy Sandke fronts the Bulgarian National Symphony (Ljubomir Denev, conductor) in a program of mostly originals (plus a little Ellingtonia) played by what sounds like a full orchestra. The orchestra is a bit generous with the brass and winds, to be sure, but the overall sound is as full – as gigantic – as in any Tchaikovsky session. There's definitely a titanic late-Romantic feel to this disc – with occasional dips into the avant-garde of almost a century ago, including a piece by the delightfully eccentric American composer Charles Ives ("The Unanswered Question").
There are also several smaller-scale pieces, although these are in the classical ballpark too: for example, one is entitled "Fugue State I" and subtitled "For brass quintet, trumpet and electronics." (Sandke doesn't appear on this one; Ivo Kazasov of the Bulgarians turns in some fine classical trumpet.)
"Fugue State II" and the title track are by a trio of Sandke, Dave Ratajczak on drums, and Jon Hayward programming the pseudo-funky synthesizer flapdoodle. The Randy Sandke Quintet handles two numbers: "Persistence (for jazz ensemble)" with Sandke, Gerry Niewood on tenor, Jim McNeely on piano, Mike Richmond on bass and Kenny Washington on drums; on "Sea Change" John Goldsby replaces Richmond.
The orchestral sections are carefully wrought, well-executed music. The Ellington number (an "Ellington-Strayhorn bouquet" made up of "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," "Lotus Blossom," and "Azalea") is perhaps a bit too grandly reverential, but Sandke and the orchestra play beautifully, and on its own terms it is more than successful. Sandke's originals for the orchestra, including a node to Beiderbecke ("Cloudy (Homage to Bix)"), "Orphic Mystery," "Overture for the Year 2000," and "Remembrance," are sure-handed, although to these ears they sound like a thousand Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev riffs. Sandke doesn't play on the "Overture," which brings 1812 to the computer age; this is the most "classical" piece on the album. That is not to say that they aren't executed spiritedly – I'm just not sure Randy Sandke is going to take his place in the pantheon with Wolfgang A. and Ludwig von.
The trios are tired funk "Fugue State II" and lost-in-space synthesizer waving and chirping ("Awakening"). Sandke as a player deserves a better setting, or no setting at all, as in the closing jewel of "Prelude to a Kiss." The quintets, with their unplugged instrumentation, are better.
Overall, however, we have here another tureen of lumpy gravy. The funk stuff just doesn't go with the orchestral pieces. The synthesizer in general – why bother when you're paying for all these real string players? Certainly this album is full of fine playing by an excellent trumpet player. It also shows that he can write convincingly for orchestra. A whole album with the orchestra might have been more ultimately convincing.