Lungau Big Band: Live at Montreux / The Monk's Progress / Soulmiles

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The Lungau Big Band is from Austria, which may surprise those who were unaware that western Europe is a prolific breeding ground for world-class big-band Jazz. Leader / trumpeter Horst Hofer was kind enough to send me copies of the LBB's three most recent discs, two of which — Live at Montreux, The Monk's Progress — are quite impressive and warmly recommended.

Montreux, the earliest of the three, was apparently recorded at Switzerland's acclaimed Jazz festival in July '99 (the exact year isn't clear from the jacket or Thomas Hein's liner notes, which are in German but dated February 2000). Appraising the LBB's electrifying performance, Mike Zwerin of the International Herald Tribune wrote: "This is no exaggeration: the Lungau Big Band and its soloists were as accomplished as the legendary Thad Jones / Mel Lewis band of the '70s. A suitable analogy, and squarely on target for a number of reasons. First, the ensemble and soloists really are that good; second, the half-dozen charts by saxophonist Herbert Berger sound as though they could have been written by Thad Jones; and third, drummer Franz Trattner kicks the band with the precision and power of Mel Lewis himself.

Berger sets up a carefree groove on "Blues News and follows with a snappy Jones-style swinger, "Mr. Miko (on which he solos nimbly on alto with trombonist Robert Bachner), before slowing the pace on "I Remember Stan, a seductive bossa showcasing Kurt Gersdorf's tenor sax, Peter Tuscher's trumpet and marvelous comping by guitarist Tom Reif and the rest of the rhythm section. Berger also wrote the gentle "Voices (featuring Tuscher's mellow flugelhorn), the buoyant "Just for Fun (solos by Bachner, baritone Wolfgang Bermadinger, bassist Alexander Meik) and the mercurial closer, "Bebop City, which veers away from Jones and toward another prominent contemporary composer, Bob Florence. Berger (clarinet) really smokes on that one, as do Tuscher, trombonist Adrian Mears and pianist Burkhard Frauenlob.

Frauenlob wrote the other charts, each of which links a charming melody to a persuasive shuffle / rock beat. "Challenge features his horn-like electric keyboard and Mears' dapper trombone, "Go On with It Gersdorf's soprano sax, Reif's guitar and Bermadinger's staccato baritone sax. A sleevenote says the outdoor temperature during the performance was 42 degrees Centigrade (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) but the band was even hotter. The audience at Montreux got its money's worth and more, while the LBB proved that it could stand toe-to-toe with the best bands Europe and the rest of the world had to offer.

Seven of the nine charts on The Monk's Progress were written by Berger's successor in the reed section, Robert Friedl (Frauenlob again wrote the others). Friedl's approach is more cerebral but no less rewarding, the swinging more understated but no less persuasive. As on Montreux, the LBB shows that it is a first-rate ensemble capable of mastering any chart.

Friedl wrote the first four selections, and they include the rockin' "Modification (solos by Friedl on alto and guitarist Wolfgang Pointner), picturesque "Monk's Passion (Juraj Bartos, flugel; Frauenlob, piano), rhythmic "Monasterio del Sur (Frauenlob, Friedl on soprano, drummer Philipp Kopmajer) and leisurely "Lebenslange Sehnsucht nach Isolation (featuring Gersdorf's expressive tenor sax). Gersdorf is the headliner again on Frauenlob's redolent composition "Everyone's Garden, Friedl (alto) and trombonist Robert Bachner on his lively "Monksmountain. Friedl also wrote the graceful "Dancing Monk (solos by Pointner and Bachner), threnodic "Peace of Mind (on which his soprano shares solo space with Dusan Kranjc's trombone) and intricate "Maze, whose whirling ensemble passages underscore incisive statements by Bachner, Bartos, baritone Gernot Strebl, tenor Christian Maurer and bassist Meik.

From the title of the album and its various selections, one might reasonably assume that this is "program music, arranged to tell a story, but as there are no liner notes that is no more than a guess. Whatever the case, the music itself is splendid, as is the LBB. An enthusiastic thumbs-up.

The third of these discs is — one would hope — an aberration, with the band backing vocalists Tony Momrelle and Gail Anderson on shopworn pop / rock / soul tunes by Stevie Wonder, James Brown, the Neville Brothers and others, as well as Joe Zawinul's "Mercy Mercy Mercy and a rock-style arrangement of George Gershwin's "Summertime. There are two instrumentals, "Pick Up the Pieces and "Soul Walk, one rap (by Momrelle on "Stomp) and at least one number (Momrelle / Robert Friedl's "As Long as I Have You ) that seems to have been explicitly designed for "smooth Jazz radio with synthesized strings and Friedl's syrupy "sax section underpinning an enigmatic refrain by Momrelle and Anderson.

The album's not bad if you like that sort of thing (I don't). Momrelle, Anderson and the LBB certainly give it their best shot, but the material is largely vapid, the charts wearisome, the lyrics uninteresting (save for "Summertime, and even that one has never inspired me). If you want to hear the LBB at its swinging best, choose Live at Montreux or The Monk's Progress.


Track Listing

Montreux

Blues News; Mr. Miko; I Remember Stan; Challenge; Voices; Just for Fun; Go On with It; Bebop City (60:10).

Soulmiles

Master Blaster; Mercy Mercy Mercy; Pick Up the Pieces; I Feel Good; Soul Walk; Stomp; As Long as I Have You; Yellow Moon; Play the Game; Summertime; Makes Me Love You More (58:20).

Monk's Progress

Modification; The Monk's Passion; El Monasterio del Sur; Die Liebenslange Sehnsucht nach Isolation; Monksmountain; Dancing Monk; Everyone's Garden; Peace of Mind; The Maze (73:20).


Personnel

Montreux

Horst Hofer, Peter Stiegler, Johann Santner, Peter Tuscher, trumpet; Herbert Berger, Hubert Pertl, Kurt Gersdorf, Herbert Hofer, Wolfgang Bermadinger, reeds; Adrian Mears, Robert Bachner, Stefan Müller, Erwin Wendl, trombone; Burkhard Frauenlob, piano, electric keyboard; Thomas Reif, guitar; Alexander Meik, bass; Franz Trattner, drums.

Soulmiles

Horst Hofer, Stiegler, Christian Haitzmann, Hans Santner, trumpet; Hubert Pertl, Robert Friedl, Kurt Gersdorf, Herbert Hofer, Wolfgang Bermadinger, reeds; Christian Radovan, Dusan Kranjc, Erwin Wendl, Stefan Müller, trombone; Burkhard Frauenlob, piano, organ, synth; Wolfgang Pointner, guitar; Ferdinand Frischling, bass; Franz Trattner, drums; Gail Anderson, Tony Momrelle, vocals.

Monk's Progress

Horst Hofer, Peter Stiegler, Juraj Bartos, Hans Santner, trumpet, flugelhorn; Robert Friedl, Hubert Pertl, Kurt Gersdorf, Herbert Hofer, Gernot Strebl, saxophone, flute, clarinet; Dusan Kranjc, Stefan Konzett, Robert Bachner, Erwin Wendl, trombone; Burkhard Frauenlob, piano; Wolfgang Pointner, guitar; Alexander Meik, bass; Philipp Kopmajer, drums.


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