Don Menza Big Band: Menza Lines
Menza Lines is the second big-band album recorded in October '04 during Stratospheric, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's salute to the music and career of high-note trumpet maestro Maynard Ferguson. Like the first one, Bill Holman Live, it's a clear-cut winner for Graham Carter's young but impressive Jazzed Media label.
The album's title has a dual meaning, epitomizing on the one hand Menza's linear charts, which invariably bring out the best in his eighteen-piece ensemble, and on the other his passion for model railroads (at home, he supervises a small-scale enterprise called the "Menza Line ). Menza's band also resembles a train, gathering speed as it rumbles persistently forward, engine at full throttle, hurrying to its destination but always staying precisely on track. For someone with his awesome reputation as a big-band composer/arranger (he has written for Maynard, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Woody Herman, among others), Menza has kept an extremely low profile over the years. Menza Lines is only the second big-band album under his name, and the first in nearly a quarter-century (Menza's Burnin' was released in 1981). A long wait indeed, but well worth it.
Considering the time lapse, what were the odds that Menza could unearth the same trumpet section he had used on Burnin'? Whatever they were, he beat them, as the sleek and powerful quintetChuck Findley, Bobby Shew, Don Rader, Ron King, Frank Szabowas on the scene and ready to report for duty, along with two more members of the '81 band, bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach and baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz, and MF alumni Don Rader, Lanny Morgan and Mike Abene. With those gentlemen stoking the furnace, passengers on board Menza's enterprising train could look forward to a smooth and worry-free ride, which is exactly what Menza Lines delivers.
The excursion begins in low gear with Jimmy Mundy's "Gravy (better known as "Walkin' ). It is here that the album's only evident misstep takes place, as Menza presumes the first solo is his and runs with the ball for about two steps (bars) before quickly handing off to his cousin, alto saxophonist Russ D'Alba, who improvises some dazzling broken-field moves and steps aside for Nimitz, who produces more of the same. "Nina Never Knew is all Menza's, and even while insisting he has "retired as a player, he continues to vanquish most younger gladiators, presenting a textbook example of how to approach a ballad and get it exactly right.
The lively "T 'n T is a showcase for the trombones, bringing to mind Jimmy Giuffre's classic "Four Others while accommodating dapper solos by Alex Iles, Bob McChesney and guitarist Mark Waggoner (also outstanding on the sensuous bossa "Faviana and wailing closer, "Time to Leave, based on "After You've Gone ). Menza and Rader construct persuasive solos on "Faviana, Menza and drummer Mike Stephans (a monstrous presence throughout) on "Time to Leave.
Morgan's superlative alto is spotlighted on "Hark' the Harold (a.k.a. "Stella by Starlight ), Shew's diaphanous flugel on Ellington's amorous "Prelude to a Kiss (with further tasteful remarks by Abene). Chris Conner's walking bass introduces "Broad Bottom, written to emphasize the ensemble's lower register (Reichenbach's bass trombone, Nimitz's bass clarinet, Abene's left hand, Menza's husky tenor) with flugelhorns and flutes creating an airy sound on top. King takes the first solo, followed by Conner, Reichenbach and Abene, while the ensemble produces an entrancing panorama of sound, reinforcing the tune's lovely melody.
This is an exhilarating trip by any measure, enfolded by interesting byways and gorgeous scenery. If you've not yet acquired a seat on the Menza Lines, don't hesitate any longer. Reserve your space in the first-class compartment and be ready to hit the rails when the conductor shouts "All aboard!
Tracks: Gravy (a.k.a. Walkin'); Nina Never Knew; T 'n T; Faviana; Hark' the Harold; Broad Bottom; Prelude to a Kiss; Time to Leave (70:49).
Personnel: Don Menza: composer, arranger, leader, tenor sax; Chuck Findley, Bobby Shew, Don Rader, Ron King, Frank Szabo: trumpet; Lanny Morgan, Russ D'Alba, Doug Webb, Tom Peterson, Jack Nimitz: reeds; Alex Iles, Bob McChesney, John Hasselback, Bill Reichenbach: trombone; Mike Abene: piano; Mark Waggoner: guitar; Chris Conner: bass; Mike Stephans: drums.