The Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra: Just for Now (2003)

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I recently sent my brother Tom two albums by the same big band and later asked how he liked them. “They’re both quite good,” he said, “but [disc A] is more enjoyable than [disc B] because it’s live; you just can’t capture the power and excitement of a big band in a studio.” Another who endorses that premise is trombonist Dave McMurdo whose Toronto-based Jazz Orchestra has produced five albums, three for attentive and appreciative audiences at Toronto’s Montreal Bistro including Just for Now, recorded in January 2001.

Of course, if one is to place his orchestra in harm’s way by recording without a net, he should first secure the services of the best available musicians, and McMurdo has definitely taken care of that; his ensemble reads like a who’s who of the most accomplished sidemen Canada has to offer, rivaled in its stature only by Rob McConnell’s now-defunct Boss Brass. Among the regulars, only tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera was unable to make the gig owing to other commitments, but his chair is capably secured by young Quisin Nachoff.

Next, the leader must provide elaborate charts that challenge his colleagues and keep them alert and on their toes. Here again, McMurdo has grabbed the brass ring with a series of marvelous compositions and arrangements by Mike Malone, Phil Nimmons, Don Thompson, Mark and Terry Promane, and the leader himself.

Malone wrote and arranged three of the half-dozen selections on Disc 1, which opens with his sinewy “What’s It Gonna Be?” and closes with two more of his superlative originals, “Angels” and “Freckles.” Phil Nimmons, a leading figure on the Canadian Jazz scene for nearly half a century, composed and scored baritone saxophonist Perry White’s captivating showpiece, “Just for Now,” Thompson composed and arranged the buoyant “Blues for Gary,” and McMurdo redecorated the statuesque Gershwin standard, “But Not for Me,” drawing inspiration, he says, from the great Bill Holman (and inscribing a treatise worthy of Holman himself).

Solos, as one would expect from musicians of this caliber, are consistently sharp, with guitarist Reg Schwager outstanding on the iridescent ”Angels,” as are tenors Nachoff and Alex Dean (“What’s It Gonna Be?”), Dean and pianist Thompson (“But Not for Me”), Thompson, Schwager and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte (“Blues for Gary”), McMurdo, White and trumpeter Chase Sanborn (“Freckles”). The ensemble as a whole is firmly on top of its game, galvanized at every turn by its world-class rhythm section (Thompson, Schwager, bassist Paul Novotny, drummer Kevin Dempsey).

Disc 2 thunders from the gate with Thompson’s tornadic “You Are the Song” (a.k.a. “The Song Is You”), featuring his sparkling piano and Dean’s searing tenor. McMurdo reworked Johnny Green’s classic “Body and Soul” as a tribute to fellow trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, with whom he studied in the ’80s. The perceptive solos are by Thompson and flutist Don Englert. Mark Promane wrote the playful “Mr. C.P.” for his son, Cole. Thompson cooks up another tasteful solo, with Nachoff and Novotny also cooking and drummer Dempsey deftly stoking the fire, as he does whenever more heat is needed. McMurdo’s expressive trombone frames the melody on a second composition by Nimmons, the evocative “Times Passed,” on which Nachoff shows his warmer side. McMurdo arranged Gary McFarland’s “Weep,” written in the ’60s for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, as a grooving backdrop for Sanborn’s lissome flugel, and the orchestra revisits the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me” with Terry Promane’s frothy “This Butt’s for You,” an upbeat swinger that houses weighty solos by Turcotte and the composer on trombone.

The ensemble ices the cake with McMurdo’s off-center arrangement of the standard “I Hear a Rhapsody,” whose familiar melody is camouflaged for more than eight minutes while Malone, who sets pen aside and picks up flugel to prove he can play as well as he writes, and the ever-resourceful Dean dig in their spurs.

This is a spectacular concert, one whose adrenalizing temper is all but impossible to translate into words. The clear alternative, of course, is to acquire one’s own copy of the album, crank up the volume, listen and enjoy.

Contact: Sackville Recordings, P.O. Box 1002, Station O, Toronto, Ontario M4A 2N4, Canada. Phone / fax 416-465-9093.

Track Listing: Disc 1 -- What

Personnel: Dave McMurdo, leader, trombone; Mark Promane, alto, soprano sax, flute; Don Englert, alto sax, flute; Alex Dean, tenor sax, flute; Quisin Nachoff, tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Perry White, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Sandy Barter, Chase Sanborn, Kevin Turcotte, Mike Malone, Neil Christofferson, trumpet, flugelhorn; Rob Summerville, Terry Promane, Ted Bohn, trombone; Bob Hamper, bass trombone; Don Thompson, piano; Reg Schwager, Geoff Young (disc 2, track 2), guitar; Paul Novotny, bass; Kevin Dempsey, drums.

Record Label: Sackville

Style: Big Band

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