As far as I know there’s no Indian chief playing with the suitably named Straight Ahead Big Band, but there’s a doctor, a lawyer, even social workers, clerks and a couple of elementary school music teachers. In other words, just a group of dedicated part-timers who come together to rehearse in leader Steve Fischer’s garage and help keep the pulse of big-band jazz beating strongly in northern California.
As is the case with many big bands these days, it’s a labor of love with the band scratching to stay intact by making itself available for clinics and fund-raisers and sponsoring other events, including a recent school jazz day at a local mall. What readers will be most interested in, of course, is how the band sounds and performs, and the short answer is, surprisingly well. Those garage rehearsals must be paying dividends, as there aren’t any glaring missteps on these albums, even though the charts aren’t especially formidable, leaning toward Basie, Kenton and Ellington with a number of well-known standards added to sweeten the pot.
First Take, recorded three years ago, opens with the band’s theme, “Basie Straight Ahead,” closes with Louis Prima’s classic “Sing Sing Sing” and includes Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings,” Dave Wolpe’s “Down Basie Street,” Lennie Niehaus / Gene Roland’s “Opus in Chartreuse” (written for the Kenton Orchestra), Sammy Nestico’s “Sam’s Boogie,” Nestico’s loping arrangement of “It’s a Wonderful World” and four amiable vocals by Nancy Fischer who doubles as the leader’s better half. Completing the program are “Silhouette,” “Dancing on a Dime” and “Gus the Cat,” the last written and arranged by tenor saxophonist Jeff Jones, who’s one of the abler soloists in a group best described as unassuming.
Second Track, recorded last year, canvasses roughly the same landscape as the band’s earlier album. After a straight-on rendition of “America the Beautiful” (vocal by Nancy Fischer), Bob Hansen’s expressive piano leads the way into Roger Hogan’s handsome arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” after which Nancy returns to sing “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and Steve unlimbers his alto sax on the jazz standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”
Nancy also sings “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Orange Colored Sky” and “That’s All,” while the ensemble is showcased on the other selections, which include Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” Henry Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind” and an opulent arrangement of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” written for the Kenton Orchestra, perhaps by Lennie Niehaus, to headline the trombone section. Also on the menu are a pair of well-drawn originals, the grooving “Jefferson Blues” and impulsive Big Band era throwback, “Uptown Stomp.” Recorded sound is clean and bright, as it is on First Take.
Even though ensembles such as the Straight Ahead band won’t ever earn the lavish accolades reserved for Basie, Kenton, Ellington, Herman, Goodman and other acknowledged big–band giants, it’s good to know they’re out there in the trenches, fighting the good fight and keeping big-band jazz alive and swinging in their tiny corner of the world. Too bad cloning isn’t yet a viable course of action; a few hundred better yet, a few thousand courageous ensembles exactly like this one certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause.
Contact: Steve Fischer, Straight Ahead Big Band, 530-221-3398; e-mail email@example.com