Mike Arena, a purposeful gentleman and Jazz saxophonist who moved from New York to Florida more than two decades ago, believed strongly that his new home — Altamonte Springs — should have a full–time big band, and took in upon himself to establish one. The success of his formidable enterprise is underscored by the title of one of these discs, which was recorded in concert a year ago and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Altamonte Springs Community Jazz Ensemble. The earlier disc, Blues for the Road Father,
is an obvious allusion to the late Woody Herman, in whose swinging image Arena has fashioned the ensemble. Of course, it is one thing to keep a band together for 20 years or more, and quite another to sustain a high level of musicianship. Judging from these two discs, Arena has done exceptionally well in that area too. If there are any rough edges they’re scarcely noticeable, and no hint of amateurism surfaces anywhere. In other words, the band can play, and it swings in the admirable Herman tradition. There are a dozen instrumental tracks on and two vocals each by Ron Starks (“My Prayer,” “The Way You Look Tonight”) and Linda Cole (“All of Me,” “I’m Through with Love”). Highlights include Dave MacKenzie’s bracing compositions, “Remember the Dragon” and “The Man with the Bus”; Dave Sheffield’s delightful “Child’s Dance”; Arena’s Herman–soaked “Taste o’ Moonshine,” “Jam” and “Blues for the Road Father”; Chris Gallagher’s twisting platform dive into “Ol’ Man River,” and Don Hannan’s contemporary look at “Vesti la Giubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, I Pagliacci. The unquenchable Herman spirit is very much alive and in evidence on 20th Anniversary too, as the ensemble comes out swinging hard on Arena’s “Mike’s Delight” and “There Will Always Be Another Ewe.” Unlike Road Father, this one’s instrumental all the way — and made up entirely of original compositions including half a dozen more by Arena, each of which is well–framed and engaging (as are Sheffield’s “Little Libras,” Tom Mitchell’s “Night Flight” and Rennie Crain’s “Moon Bossa”). Guest artist Bill Prince wrote and plays marvelous soprano sax on the exuberant “Lady Soul,” while the band’s other charming guest, guitarist Rich Walker, is tastefully showcased on his own breezy chart, “Blues for Louie G.” We’ve not mentioned the various soloists, but they are consistently admirable, from saxophonists Arena, MacKenzie, Tommy Loyola and Barry Weinstein to trumpeters Dave Smith, Bruce Johnson and Chris Dolske, trombonists Sheffield and Tom Mitchell, pianists Kevin Curtin and Eric Grigg, guitarist Martin Sensiper and drummers Don Sanderson and Dick Bonenfant. The anniversary concert’s closing number, Arena’s “Just a Matter of Time,” serves to remind that the playing time on both discs (73:19, 71:11) is exceedingly generous. Please don’t let the “community Jazz ensemble” label put you off; if you’re expecting to hear another run–of–the–mill performance by a well–meaning but under–equipped group of novices, there’s an exceedingly pleasant surprise awaiting you. As they used to say in Herman’s heyday, the Altamonte Springs Jazz Ensemble is a gas.
Track listing: Blues for the Road Father — Vesti la Giubba; In a Mellow Tone; Stolen Moments; Remember the Dragon; My Prayer; The Way You Look Tonight; Desire; Child’s Dance; Taste o’ Moonshine; The Man with the Bus; All of Me; I’m Through with Love; Jam; Until the Real Thing Comes Along; Blues for the Road Father; Ol’ Man River (73:19). 20th Anniversary Concert — Mike’s Delight; There Will Always Be Another You; Lady Soul; Blues for Louie G; Everlasting; Little Libras; Brad’s Pad; Bossarena; Night Flight; Moon Bossa; Chick–Nick; Shades of Brass; Just a Matter of Time (71:11).