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Extended Analysis

The Mike Vax Big Band: Next Stop: Live... On the Road

By Published: May 18, 2005
The Mike Vax Big Band
Next Stop: Live... On the Road
Summit Records

Word is that the days when lesser-known big bands boarded buses and traveled from town to town in a series of grueling one-night stands are gone forever. Happily for those who appreciate live big-band Jazz, that word apparently hasn't reached the ears of trumpeter Mike Vax who keeps emptying the cookie jar and piggy bank, cashing in his chips and mortgaging the future to take his nineteen-piece big band, in the words of Willie Nelson, "on the road again. Next Stop was recorded during the second of the band's three spring tours in the last four years, this one to the East Coast in '04 (the band was back on the bus in late April-early May this year for a number of performances in Texas and Louisiana).

Unless one has actually escorted a band on the road, the many obstacles strewn in its path are hard to envision, from booking and reimbursement to shabby instruments (especially pianos), second-rate acoustics, lack of rehearsal time and almost every hazard in between. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that any sort of narrative is created and preserved, let alone an album as generally pleasing as this one. Yes, it was recorded at half a dozen disparate venues, and yes, the sound quality and balance vary widely from track to track and are never more than adequate, but there's no denying the energy and enthusiasm of Vax's ensemble, which always comes to play and aims to please.

Nearly a quarter of the disc's sixty-one minute playing time is devoted to pianist Bob Florence's innovative salute to Stan Kenton, "Appearing in Cleveland (there's a story behind the name, but you can read it in the liner notes), another eight minutes to "We Miss You Dickus, trombonist Dale DeVoe's fond tribute to his late section-mate, Dick Shearer. As the ensemble houses a number of Kenton alumni including the leader, there are several charts from Stan's book including Gerry Mulligan's fiery "Young Blood, Hank Levy's demanding "Pegasus (sight-read by the band in response to a request from a high school Jazz ensemble) and three by Lennie Niehaus, "On the Street Where You Live, "The Party's Over and the love theme from the musical Hair. The last is listed as a "bonus track, and it is indeed special, having been recorded at a private concert in Leesburg, VA, for Scott Tompach, the son of co-producer Norm Tompach, a month before Scott lost his battle with brain cancer. Every member of the band performed, on his day off, without pay (or any thought of it).

Vax is featured on the "Love Theme, as he is with tenor saxophonist Pete Gallio on another dazzling Niehaus chart, "Vax Attacks, with alto Kim Richmond on "Pegasus and with Florence on the late Frank Mantooth's heart-stopping arrangement of Albert Hague's lovely ballad, "Young and Foolish. Gallio frames engaging solos on "Vax Attacks, "Cleveland, "Dickus and "The Party's Over, as do DeVoe ("Dickus ), tenor Alex Murzyn ("Young Blood, Ray Wetzel's venerable "Intermission Riff ), trumpeter Jay Daversa and alto Scott Peterson ("Young Blood ), baritone Joel Kaye, trumpeter Mike Olmos, drummer Jamie Tate ("Cleveland ) and bassist Chris Symer ("Pegasus, "Intermission Riff ). The blue ribbon, however, goes to trumpeter Carl Saunders for his breathtaking a cappella introduction, animated solo and spectacular high-note work on Victor Young / Ned Washington's "My Foolish Heart, with Florence a close second on "Young and Foolish.

There are times when one can hear Vax (or someone) count off the tempo, and that, combined with audience buzz, a couple of wayward notes and some audible stage noise, gives rise to an occasional perception that leans more toward rehearsal than concert — which is fine, as listening to these gentlemen rehearse is preferable to hearing many bands play for keeps. One thing that did puzzle me was the absence of applause after the opener, "On the Street Where You Live, as the audience is clearly present and responds warmly on every other number. Be that as it may, what we have is a high-spirited but inevitably uneven account of a talented contemporary ensemble's on-the-road experience, warts and all. Those who admire the incomparable Stan Kenton Orchestra — and many still do, more than a quarter-century after his passing — are sure to love this straight-from-the-hip album by one of Stan's ardent champions, Mike Vax, and his intrepid band of ex-Kentonites and their colleagues.

Tracks: On the Street Where You Live; Young Blood; Pegasus; Appearing in Cleveland; Young and Foolish; My Foolish Heart; Intermission Riff; Vax Attacks; We Miss You Dickus; The Party's Over; Love Theme from "Hair (60:54).

Personnel: Mike Vax, leader, trumpet; Dennis Noday, Carl Saunders, Mike Olmos, Jay Daversa, trumpet; Kim Richmond, alto sax; Scott Petersen, alto, baritone sax; Pete Gallio, Alex Murzyn, tenor sax; Joel Kaye, baritone, bass sax; Roy Wiegand, Dale DeVoe, Curtis Fox, trombone; Kenny Shroyer, bass trombone; Mike Suter, bass trombone, tuba; Bob Florence, piano; Jack Peterson, guitar; Chris Symer, bass; Jamie Tate, drums.

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