How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Make room in the satchel; the second album by the spectacular Ed Vezinho/Jim Ward Big Band has at last arrived, and it's definitely earmarked for shipment to that mythical "desert island," along with the ensemble's spine-tingling debut, Smile, which was No. 1 on this reviewer's Top 10 survey of new releases three years ago.
As before, the consistently impressive charts were designed by co-leader/lead alto Vezinho; as before, Ward and split lead Joe Scannella preside over one of the world's most proficient and powerful trumpet sections; as before, there are persuasive solos by Ward, Vezinho, trumpeters Mike Natale and Dennis Wasko, trombonists Clint Sharman and Joe Ziegenfus, alto Howard Isaacson, tenor John Guida, baritone Stan Weiss, pianist Demetrios Pappas and special guest Ron Kerber (tenor sax on "Keep on Tryin'," alto on "Kerbonics"); as before, the dynamic rhythm section is manned by Pappas, bassist Steve Beskrone and drummer Harry Himles; as before, Stephen Sondheim is represented (with "Send in the Clowns"); and as before, I'm almost at a loss for words with which to portray adequately this irrepressible New Jersey-based juggernaut. Best perhaps to observe that there are no apparent weaknesses and let it go at that. If that sounds like cheerleading, all I can add is hip-hip-hooray! The V-W Big Band is back, and kicking butt!
The ensemble's remarkable cohesiveness is palpable from the opening bars of "May Day," the first of Vezinho's eight pulse-quickening compositions, a well-cooked swinger whose buoyant introductory statement by Pappas precedes agile solos by Natale and Guida. "Clowns" is next, with Pappas again leading the way, Ziegenfus stating the melody and Ward and Guida sharing solo honors. Sharman is featured on the perky "Capture Me," Kerber on "Tryin'," Natale on Vezinho's whimsical treatment of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," Weiss on the soulful ballad "Perspective," Isaacson on the shuffling "3 Point Shot." Vezinho (soprano) and Pappas garnish Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse's graceful "Pure Imagination." The snugly-grooved title selection, which ends with a playful quote from "Short'nin' Bread," was written for and dedicated to Vezinho's mother, Irma (whose hair, he insists in the liner notes, "isn't really blue!"). The band wraps things up with a snappy and rhythmic salute to Jerome Kern, Vezinho's Latinized "All the Things I'm Not" (cogent ad-libs courtesy of Natale and Guida).
Is Blue Haired Mama as good as Smile? Well, perhaps not quiteit's never easy to match that initial burst of inspirationbut it's so darn close that no one is likely to complain. I know I won't. As I wrote in reviewing its earlier album, this band is something special, and should I ever reach that desert island I'll not only be Smile -ing happily but will welcome as a traveling companion one vivacious and charming Blue Haired Mama.
Track Listing: May Day; Send in the Clowns; Capture Me; Keep on Tryin'; Pure Imagination; Kerbonics; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Perspective; Paquitio; 3 Point Shot; Blue Haired Mama; All the Things I'm Not (68:16).
Personnel: Jim Ward, Joe Scannella, Bill Pusey, Mike Natale, Dennis Wasko, trumpet; Ed Vezinho, Howard Isaacson, John Guida, Joe Rotella, Stan Weiss, reeds; Joe Ziegenfus, Clint Sharman, Rich Goldstein, trombone; Joe Jacobs, bass trombone; Demetrios Pappas, piano; Steve Beskrone, bass; Harry Himles, drums. Special guest -- Ron Kerber (4, 6), tenor sax.