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Extended Analysis

Planet Jazz: In Orbit

By Published: May 16, 2006
Planet Jazz
In Orbit
Sharp Nine Records

Planet Jazz is a longstanding, unrecognized sextet that boasts several exceptional soloists and an unusually cogent rhythm section. Two factors distinguish the band from the wealth of talented groups on the New York City straight-ahead jazz scene: A precise ensemble sound honed by a year's worth of regular gigs at Smalls, Mitch Borden's musician-friendly club; and a book comprised largely of tunes by the composer/drummer Johnny Ellis. Best known for his tenure with the Widespread Depression Orchestra, Ellis founded Planet Jazz, and after his untimely death in 1999 the group soldiered on with one of his favorites, Joe Strasser, in the drum chair.

Ellis wrote distinctive melodies and arranged them in a variety of forms. "Buttermoose is a romping, 32-bar swing tune. "The Cow is Now keeps expanding as Ellis joins themes to a recurring eight bar motif. His most ambitious work on the disc, "The Lemur is a Dreamer, features three tempos and interprets the melody in different ways. Every one of the tracks (five by Ellis and one each from Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges, Charlie Shavers, and Hampton Hawes) strikes a neat balance between the ensemble passages and solos of brief to moderate duration. Even when three or four consecutive solos are played, there's never any sense of disconnection from the written material.

In Orbit is chock-full of memorable performances. Strasser's low-key eight measure introduction to "Mommy, Mommy NO! begins with a loose time feel and morphs into a more clearly defined cadence that cues the band. When the tune commences you realize that his muted bass drum pattern is a rhythmic match for Ellis' melody. Grant Stewart's two chorus solo on the same track delivers a steady stream of remarks in a broad, slightly nasal tone. As the tenor saxophonist gradually builds up steam he makes brief digressions, such as braying quarter note triplets which seesaw against the beat, that never betray his overall design.

Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli displays a flair for exacting melodic invention and a lovely full sound on the horn. For most of his solo on Ellis' "The Squirrel is a Girl he stays in the horn's middle register, offering chains of loosely connected thoughts in a fairly relaxed manner. He likes to linger on one note in the middle of a cluster, build a phrase to the point where it's about to take off then abruptly descend into silence, or play lines that dart in different directions before leveling off.

Spike Wilner takes three choruses on his arrangement of Hawes' "Sonora. The pianist displays a firm touch, heeds the pulse established by Strasser and bassist Neil Miner, and often leaves space for guitarist Peter Bernstein's nimble comping. Wilner sounds fresh in part because he's able to make a variety of devices—such as letting a note ring at the end of a phrase, or bearing down on a string of notes so they charge across the beat—hang together, creating a sense of continuous movement. Later on Strasser's solo is noteworthy for the ways he makes use of the band's vamp. Employing combinations of the tom-toms, snare, and cymbals that are short and to the point, he treats the vamp like an equal partner, approaching it from several different angles. Strasser never tramples over the figure, instead choosing to leave parts of it exposed, sometimes playing in unison with one or two notes, as well as using it as a template for repeated, riff-like rhythms.

On Ellington and Hodges' "Dual Highway, the disc's final track, Peter Bernstein plays the blues with a cool, understated authority. Bernstein's masterful blend of familiar blues locutions is evenly paced and devoid of cliché. He makes it easy to simply enjoy the solo without thinking too much about what goes into it.

Tracks: Mommy, Mommy No!; Buttermoose; The Cow is Now; The Lemur is a Dreamer; Dawn on the Desert; The Squirrel is a Girl; Sorora; Dual Highway.

Personnel: Grant Stewart: tenor saxophone; Joe Magnarelli: trumpet, flugelhorn; Peter Bernstein: guitar; Spike Wilner: piano; Neal Miner: bass; Joe Strasser: drums.

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