I’m always a touch apprehensive when preparing to review a big–band album whose title is as exotic as Okavongo, but trumpeter Greg Hopkins and his New England–based Jazz Orchestra set my mind at ease immediately with a sharp and dynamic reading of pianist James Williams’ “Stretchin’” (with the author sitting in on piano) and easily held my interest throughout the remainder of a well–shaped seventy–two–minute session. Perhaps “sessions” is more appropriate, as half the album was recorded in January ’97, the other half in January ’98. Hopkins, who we’re advised in the liner notes is a largely self–taught arranger, must have paid close attention to what he was telling himself, as the thirteen charts on Okavongo are consistently resourceful and engaging. Hopkins also composed ten numbers, the exceptions being “Stretchin’,” a second tune by Williams (“Thoughts”), and Wayne Shorter’s seductive ballad, “Infant Eyes” (featuring Bill Pierce’s probing tenor sax). Hopkins, who once arranged for Buddy Rich (“Nutville” is on his resumé), pays tribute to the heroic Chinese students whose ill–starred bid for freedom was crushed by army forces in Tienanmen Square with “Nightfall” and “Crackdown,” and to legendary pianist Thelonious Monk with “Sphere of T.M,” parts 1 and 2. Guitarist Mick Goodrick is showcased on the Jazz waltz “Nightfall,” pianist Tim Ray on “Sphere of T.M.,” part 1. Other soloists worth checking out include Hopkins, altos Larry Monroe and Bruce Nifong, tenor Greg Badolato, trumpeter Paul Fontaine, trombonist Jeff Galindo, bassist Bruce Gertz and drummer Joe Hunt. The band cooks throughout with Hunt and his formidable rhythm–mates constantly warming the oven. There’s a bit of “free association” on the prologues to “Crackdown” and “Steller by Satellite,” but not enough to be unnerving. In fact, the boppish “Steller” (with solos to match by Monroe and Galindo) closes the album on a splendid note. This is high–caliber straight–ahead big–band Jazz, marvelously scored by Hopkins and played with brio by his 16 Piece Jazz Orchestra.
Contact:Summit Records, P. O. Box 26850, Tempe, AZ 85285 (phone 800–543–5156; e–mail email@example.com).
Track Listing: Stretchin
Personnel: Greg Hopkins, leader, trumpet, flugelhorn; Larry Monroe, Bruce Nifong, Mark Pinto (5, 8, 9), ato sax, flute; Bill Pierce, tenor, soprano sax; Greg Badolato, John Greiner (2