The second album by the superb Indianapolis-based Buselli / Wallarab Jazz Orchestra is comprised entirely of compositions by Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981), a fellow Indianan who wrote mostly “popular” music (as in the Great American Songbook) but always saved a place for jazz in his Heart and Soul.
Carmichael penned hundreds of songs, a number of which have become jazz standards, and from that treasure trove the BWJO has chosen eleven sparkling gems including one of the earliest, “Washboard Blues,” and such later masterpieces as “Skylark,” “Lazy River,” “Heart and Soul” and “Stardust.” It’s great to have such wonderful material to work with, and thanks to Wallarab’s panoramic and perceptive arrangements, Carmichael’s music has seldom sounded fresher than it does here.
The second half of the album is designed as a suite that, in the words of annotator David Baker, “tell[s] the story of two lovers from the moment they ask the question ‘won’t you tell me where my love can be?’ [“Skylark”] to the nights where they must live with ‘the memory of love’s refrain’ [“Stardust”]. Those paragons bookend four other Carmichael classics, “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” “One Morning in May” and “I Get Along without You Very Well” (the last two shrewdly blended into an alternating medley).
The suite is enhanced by the impressive vocal talents of Everett Greene and Delores King- Williams who unearth every nugget of charm and beauty in Hoagy’s golden lyrics. While King- Williams doesn’t seem to be a jazz singer per se, her gorgeous voice and seductive manner quickly erase any uneasiness about that; as for Greene, those who were smitten by the late Billy Eckstine should prepare themselves to fall in love all over again. The duo is showcased on “Skylark,” “One Morning in May / I Get Along without You” and “Stardust” (a couple of minor bobbles with the lyric there), Greene on “The Nearness of You,” King-Williams on “Heart and Soul.”
Greene introduces himself earlier on a suitably laid-back reading of “Rockin’ Chair,” which follows four beauteous instrumentals (“Jubilee,” “Washboard Blues,” “Lazy River,” “New Orleans”), each one expertly scored by Wallarab. “Jubilee” is an effusive swinger with solos to match by Buselli and the BWJO’s outstanding pianist, Luke Gillespie. Trombonists Wallarab and Loy Hetrick, clarinetist Randy Salman and trumpeter Lennie Foy are the headliners on “Washboard Blues,” flugel Jeff Conrad and tenor Mike Stricklin on “Lazy River.” The flavorsome visit to “New Orleans” is tastefully garnished by Buselli’s trumpet and Ned Boyd’s baritone sax.
Every world-class orchestra needs a reliable engine to keep it in gear, and the BWJO has a solid and resourceful power plant in Gillespie, bassist Jack Helsley and drummer Deno Sanders. Gillespie’s a marvel, and Helsley and Sanders can play in that league too. The rest of the ensemble is exemplary, in spite of the loss of lead trumpeter Larry Wiseman, to whose memory the album is dedicated. Wiseman’s successor, Joey Tartell, makes sure there’s no letdown in that precinct.
So what we have here is a great big band playing great music by a great composer. Sound enticing? You bet it does. If jazz reviewers were inclined to listen to big bands (my guess is that no more than a handful of them do), Heart and Soul would no doubt appear on many a Top Ten list at the end of this year.