Here’s an unexpected but no less welcome windfall for big–band lovers. Composer / arranger / pianist Les Hooper has reissued four of his superb albums from the ’70s and ’80s on compact disc, the first two featuring his excellent Chicago–based group, the others an all–star West Coast ensemble. If you appreciate a big band that swings its kiester and aren’t too fussy about sound quality or playing times, any or all of these discs would greatly enhance your library.
The earliest of the four, Look What They’ve Done (1974), was nominated, and deservedly so, for three Grammy Awards — one for Best Jazz Album, the others for Best Arrangements (“Look What They’ve Done,” “Circumvent”). Like Dorian Blue (1975), it was recorded in Chicago with an ensemble that included some of the area’s leading sidemen, and there are concise but convincing solos by trumpeters Bobby Lewis, George Bean and Art Hoyle; saxophonists Rich Corpolongo, Don Shelton, Kenny Soderblom and Ron Kolber; trombonists Bill Dinwidde and Lorin Binford, drummer Tom Radtke and Hooper himself at the keyboard. Shelton, who went on to help form the popular singing group The Hi–Los and remains a first–call saxophonist in a number of West Coast ensembles, is featured on alto on Hooper’s “Opus III” and on soprano on Dorian Blue’s waggishly named “Hexagon Mat Dance.” Hooper’s charts are sharp and inventive, especially for their time, and it’s not surprising to learn that two of them were Grammy–nominated, as even those that weren’t have much to recommend them, not least of which is Hooper’s unerring tendency to swing. The same is true of Dorian Blue, which opens with the easy–moving “Shabadop” — complete with Shelton–led vocal group, crisp solos by Hooper, baritone Kolber and trumpeter Hoyle and solid basswork from Rufus Reid (who may have been a student at Northwestern University at the time). The singing group makes a second appearance on Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” and Hooper is credited with a “vocal” on the funky “Havin’ a Good Time,” but he’s actually humming (almost inaudibly) as he plays the electric piano (another benchmark of the ’70s). A highlight of Dorian Blue is “Fast Forward,” as rapid as the name implies, which features tenor Corpolongo, trumpeter Bean, trombonist Frank Tasinski and either Shelton or Soderblom on alto (the solo is uncredited). “Dorian Blue,” a chorale–like piece reminiscent of the sort of elaborate compositions favored by Stan Kenton’s orchestra, includes a swinging middle passage brightened by trumpeters Lewis and Gary Slavo and perceptive piano work by Hooper. So much for the positives. On the downside, the first two of these reissues could fit comfortably on a single CD with room to spare, and the third, Raisin’ the Roof, runs for less than thirty–nine minutes. Look What They’ve Done and Dorian Blue sound like they were transferred directly to disc from vinyl copies of the albums, while Raisin’ the Roof (from 1982) has sonic problems of its own. Although personnel are listed, none of the four discs includes liner notes, only Raisin’ the Roof notes a recording date, and only Look What They’ve Done lists playing times for each track. Booklet graphics consist largely of photos of the original album covers, and the tray cards are similarly modest, to phrase it as charitably as possible.
Having said that, we should re–emphasize the superior quality of the music itself, which almost eclipses any shortcomings. This is no less true of Hooper’s West Coast band than it is of the Chicago–based ensemble. Hooper’s arrangement on Raisin’ the Roof of Gabriel Faure’s melancholy “Pavanne” (featuring flutist Steve Kujalah) was nominated for another Grammy Award, and the other charts are first–class as well, from the lovely “Sayin’ Goodbye” (featuring Ron King’s flugel) to the staccato “Chickenyard Social” (Nick Brown, guitar), Kentonesque “El Improvo Grande” (Larry Lunetta, trumpet), richly textured “I Want a Little Girl” (Kim Richmond, alto), free–swinging “Residual Fire Dance” (King, trumpet; Dan Higgins, alto), lusciously Latinized “Coffee and Castanets” (King, Kujalah) and hip–shakin’ title selection (Dave Stone, bass). A well–designed model of entertaining big–band Jazz.
This brings us to the last of the four reissues, Anything Goes, which one could reasonably assume, based on its more generous playing time (64:05), was either released originally on compact disc or that bonus tracks were added, although no information is given aside from the booklet’s designation that it is “Anything Goes” Plus. What can be noted is that it was recorded after the other three, which would place it perhaps in the mid–’80s or coincident with the arrival of the CD. As might be expected, sound quality is markedly better while the music is, on the whole, as exemplary as that on the other three albums, so if one had to narrow his / her choice to only one of them, Anything Goes would be the obvious front–runner. There are thirteen selections, ten of which were (presumably) written by Hooper (as on the other albums, composer credits are missing); the others are Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” (wonderfully scored, of course) and two standards by Cole Porter, “Anything Goes” and “I Love You.” At least two selections, “All Flutes,” with Hooper on Fender Rhodes and Grant Geissman on guitar, and “When We’re Together,” featuring Higgins’ alto, lean precariously toward Lite or Smooth Jazz. “Fast Forward,” from Dorian Blue, reappears, this time with solos by Higgins, tenor Ray Herrmann and drummer Dave Hooper. The leader’s fondness for Latin Jazz surfaces on “Juan of These Days,” whose catchy melody, reminiscent of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” is accentuated by flutist Shuichi Komiyama and flugel Ron King, while his funkier nature is laid bare on “Sure Foot,” “Rooster Parade” (which could have been written by Gordon Goodwin, who solos on tenor) and “Chicken Polo” (which, come to think of it, sounds like another Goodwin chart). Higgins solos with trumpeter Clay Jenkins on “I Love You” and with Geissman on the throbbing finale, “Maniac.” Even with their conspicuous flaws, Hooper’s reissued albums are generally engaging and well worth acquiring.