There are no more than a handful of big–band composer / arrangers these days who “leave their fingerprints,” as it were; those whose style is so readily identifiable that one can say with credible assurance, “Oh, yeah, that’s (fill in the blank).” Rob McConnell is one such craftsman, Bill Holman another, and Sammy Nestico and Gerald Wilson may warrant inclusion in that select company. Let’s see, are we overlooking anyone? Oh, yes, of course! — Bob Florence, a masterful big–band strategist who can take even the most shopworn melody and transform it into a paragon of beauty and freshness that has his matchless “fingerprints” all over it. Give Florence eighteen world–class musicians (as one may find, for example, in Germany’s superb SWR Big Band) to work with, then step aside and wonder as he deftly weaves their separate talents into a breathtakingly lovely and harmonious musical tapestry. Even such well–traveled warhorses as Strayhorn’s “‘A’ Train” and Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” yield to Florence’s sorcery and undergo a remarkable transformation, clothed in a dazzling new garment that even their authors would no doubt admire. As Goldener Meilenstein (in English, Golden Milestone) honors the SWR band’s fiftieth anniversary year, the album opens with the three–movement suite that Florence was commissioned to write to mark the occasion. As usual, it combines Florence’s trademark multi–layered ensemble passages with ample breathing space for soloists (soprano Klaus Graf and trumpeter Karl Farrent on Part 1; Florence — sitting in for the band’s regular pianist, Martin Schrack — and trombonist Ernst Hutter on Part 2; tenor Jörg Kaufmann, guitarist Klaus–Peter Schöpfer and drummer Holger Nell on Part 3). The suite is followed by a dramatic reading of the ballad “You Must Believe in Spring,” with Florence’s tasteful a cappella introduction leading to a flag–waving finish accentuated by Kaufmann’s sturdy tenor, and a playful Florence original, “Whatever Bubbles Up,” featuring Farrent, trombonist Marc Godfroid and tenor Andi Maile. For some reason the two “trains” leave the station back–to–back, but as Florence guides them along widely separate tracks there’s no chance of a collision. The splendid solos on “‘A’ Train” are by Nell, trumpeter Claus Reichstaller and baritone saxophonist Pierre Paquette, those on “Night Train” by Maile, Reichstaller and trumpeter Rüdiger Baldauf. The commemorative session closes with two more outstanding compositions by Florence, the waltz–time “Mirror Image” and “Some Bad and Beautiful Blues,” with some bad and beautiful solo passages on the latter by Nell, Farrent and alto Axel Kühn. The SWR Big Band is remarkably spry for a fifty–year–old, and thanks to Florence’s awesome talents Goldener Meilenstein may well be one of its finest hours (seventy–three minutes, actually, but we’ll gladly accept the extra thirteen). Happy birthday, SWR! — and may you be blessed with many more.