Something was bothering me as I listened to “Juba,” the adrenalizing opening track on the fourth and most recent album by bassist Jim Widner’s world-class big band. It was Phil DeGreg’s piano. Not the comping—Phil’s too capable for that—but the piano itself, unusually clanky and far too prominent in the mix. Rather than chaperoning quietly in the background, the piano was drawing attention to itself—never a good sign—as alto saxophonist Dave Pietro and trumpeter Dave Scott soloed.
This was true to some extent, I found, throughout the album, which is certainly no fault of Phil’s. And we shouldn‘t focus too intensely on that blemish, as it’s about the only flaw (aside from the engineering and mixing) that one can find without a magnifying glass in an otherwise spectacular album, brilliantly performed, as always, by Widner’s superb all-star ensemble.
For starters, the choice of music is beyond reproach with captivating originals by Pietro (“Juba,” “Forgotten Dreams”), DeGreg (“Urgency”), John Pizzarelli (“Seven on Charlie”) and Kim Richmond (“Big Pocket”) complementing the enduring standards “Everything Happens to Me,” “Emily” and “Last Night When We Were Young,” the lesser- known but invigorating “Why Should I Care,“ and Ray Noble’s oft-roasted Jazz chestnut, “Cherokee.”
As for the soloists, they are consistently sharp and resourceful. Richmond (alto) is awesome on his arrangement of “Everything Happens,” trombonist Paul McKee likewise on his ballad feature, “Emily.” Richmond (clarinet) and guitarist Rick Haydon have a blast on “Charlie,” while trombonist Brett Stamps and drummer Gary Hobbs are loose and swinging on the picturesque “Big Pocket” before its rather abrupt ending.
In the liner notes, Widner mourns the passing of trombonist and charter member of the band Ron Anson, not knowing he’d soon be saying goodbye to another colossus, the great tenor man Bill Perkins, who was playing one of his last gigs and is showcased on “Last Night When We Were Young.” Haydon, McKee, Hobbs and tenor Pete Gallio help splash the war paint on “Cherokee,” which is marred (on my copy) by a number of bothersome recording glitches (there are several others, less obvious, elsewhere).
I've said nothing as yet about the ensemble as a whole, and nothing need be said, really, except to note that Widner’s band is comprised of topnotch musicians who invariably play with awareness and commitment, never miss a cue and rarely bobble a note. The trumpet section, co-led by Harner and Mike Vax, is especially dynamic (the crescendo midway through “Forgotten Dreams“ is spine-tingling), as is the rhythm section of DeGreg, Haydon, Widner and Hobbs.
Another bravura performance by Widner’s intrepid ensemble, which keeps on getting better and better.
Personnel: John Harner, Mike Vax, Clay Jenkins, Dave Scott, Rick Stitzel (3, 8), Tijuana Julian (3), trumpet; Kim Richmond, alto sax, flute, clarinet; Dave Pietro, alto sax, flute; Bill Perkins, Pete Gallio, tenor sax, flute; Jon Stone, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Brett Stamps, Paul McKee, David Stamps, Corey Fritz (4), trombone; Eric Swanson, bass trombone; Phil DeGreg, piano; Rick Haydon, guitar; Jim Widner, bass; Gary Hobbs, drums.