The Steve Huffsteter Big Band: Gathered Around
To me and I'm confident that others must feel the same about the only thing better than hearing a great big band is seeing and hearing a great big band, which is precisely what I am doing as this review is being written. The band in question is led by trumpeter / composer Steve Huffsteter, and the reason I am able to see and hear the ensemble perform is that Steve and his talented colleagues have produced a marvelous DVD, Gathered Around, that I can watch and enjoy on my computer screen as I let others know about it. As a matter of fact, Steve's just now wrapping up his seductive trumpet solo on Track 2, "Circles" (here comes tenor Doug Webb), and the added dimension of seeing these guys actually working through the changes while the band grooves behind them is quite exhilarating, almost like being in the audience at a concert.
The arena is Spartan twenty musicians arrayed in a circle on a nearly bare stage but the music is sublime, consisting as it does of eight original compositions by Huffsteter that run the gamut from bossa to burner, ballad to blues (a brief pause here while I dig the late Bill Perkins) edgy soprano statement on "Nightwalk"). This must have been one of Perk's last recording dates, and the session is dedicated to his memory. Besides "Nightwalk," he delivers typically idiosyncratic solos on alto (the funky "3 1/2") and again on soprano ("Autumn Returns," Huffsteter?s clever design on the well-known standard "Autumn Leaves"). Returning to the music, it shows clearly that Huffsteter, who has long been acknowledged as one of the West Coast?s outstanding trumpeters, is a writer of considerable perception and talent. He has an ear for a charming melody and knows how to let the music breathe, tempering the ensemble passages, accentuating the rhythmic pulse and giving the soloists ample space in which to express themselves.
The bossa "Moacir" comes first, its gently swaying rhythms and buoyant declamations by brass and reeds enclosing ardent solos by Huffsteter (flugel) and tenor saxophonist Jerry Pinter. Kevin Axt's walking bass introduces the whirling, up-tempo "Circles," on which Huffsteter again takes the first solo, followed by Webb, guitarist Jamie Findley and pianist Mark Massey with Axt and drummer Dave Tull providing exemplary rhythmic support, as they do on every number. "Nightwalk," a slow-paced but rhythmically intense showpiece for the ensemble that spotlights Perk's quirky soprano solo and another by Huffsteter, again on trumpet, is followed by "The Quest," a dramatic treatise punctuated by screaming brass, powerful rhythms and an inspired alto discourse by Kim Richmond. "3 1/2" shuffles along in a soulful groove behind perceptive statements by Perkins, Findley and trombonist Jock Ellis, while Huffsteter, trombonist Les Benedict and trumpeter Lee Thornburg engage in round-robin blowing before Webb, Richmond and Perkins swap ideas on the enchanting "Autumn Returns." Huffsteter replaces Massey at the keyboard to frame a lovely a cappella introduction to "Fool's Silver," an unhurried charmer reminiscent of Neal Hefti's "Girl Talk" that includes an eloquent solo by baritone saxophonist Jim Cowger. The strapping finale, "A Waltz & Battery," gives the ensemble a chance to cut loose and roar while leaving room for trenchant commentary by Benedict, Webb and Axt. Speaking of Axt, it would be imprudent not to mention that he, Findley, Massey, Tull and percussionist D Huffsteter comprise a lively and tasteful rhythm section that deftly underlines every measure and phrase
Technically, the DVD is, for the most part, quite satisfactory, with clear picture quality, well-balanced audio and enough variety from the several cameras to sustain one?s interest. We are told that it was recorded using multi-channel state-of-the-art 96 kHz / 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion, digitally mixed in an acoustically equipped studio through a 5.1 Euphonix System automated digital console and mastered using the latest high definition software from Sonic Solutions. With such impressive equipment covering every base, what could possibly go wrong? Well, on my copy, at least, there are a number of mysterious yet plainly audible fluctuations in the sound level (that is to say, the volume fades, then rises again) during both ensemble and solo passages that, considering the care with which the disc was apparently recorded, mixed and mastered, shouldn't be there but they are. Hardly enough to lessen one's enthusiasm for the enterprise or reduce his (or her) over-all listening pleasure, but consumers should be aware that they may be present so there'll be no unsettling surprises.