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Big Band Caravan

Tolvan Big Band / Frank Macchia / Norrbotten Big Band

By Published: February 1, 2008
Tolvan Big Band
Code Red
Prophone Records

Sweden's Tolvan Big Band—which has been pleasing audiences and amassing honors for almost three decades and has a well-earned reputation for probing the outer boundaries of ensemble-oriented jazz—shows on Code Red, its first recording in five years, that it has neither overlooked nor forgotten the fine art of swinging.

Tolvan assumes its dauntless posture immediately on Helge Albin's title selection and maintains it throughout every one of the album's seven numbers, all inscribed by members of the band. Besides "Code Red," artistic director/saxophonist Albin composed "Going Bananas" and "Subconscious C." Fellow saxophonist Cennet Jonsson wrote "Cats And Dogs," "The Other Day" and "Antelope Dance," while pianist Jacob Karlzon penned and Albin arranged the strapping finale, "Ups And Downs."

Karlzon is showcased on "Ups And Downs," Jonsson's cavernous bass clarinet on "Subconscious C." Karlzon solos again with trumpeter Peter Asplund on "Code Red," with Jonsson (soprano saxophone) and drummer Lennart Gruvstedt on "The Other Day." Vincent Nilsson wrests almost every possible sound from a muted trombone on "Cats And Dogs," on which Albin (alto saxophone) also solos. Nilsson, trombonist Ola Akerman, bassist Patrik Albin and trumpeter Fredrik Davidsson share center stage on "Going Bananas," Asplund (flugelhorn) and tenor saxophonist Inge Petersson on "Antelope Dance."

As one would envision, Tolvan easily nails every chart—and does so while swinging robustly, proving that there's more to the band than aloofness or pedantry. Code Red is earnest, straight-ahead big band jazz, and warmly recommended.

Frank Macchia

Landscapes is composer/arranger/saxophonist Frank Macchia's second recording with the Prague Orchestra. The first, Emotions (Cacophony, 2006), earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement. As on that earlier album, the centerpiece is a Macchia suite for saxophone and orchestra, the six-movement Landscapes, described as a "sonic travelogue" that portrays musically far-flung vistas and habitats from "Golden Fields," "Desert Heat" and "River Rapids" to "Arctic Chill," "Jungle Life" and "Forest Twilight."

Apart from the suite, Macchia's choice of material is typically unorthodox but no less agreeable, embodying three traditional themes—"Shenandoah," "Down In The Valley," "Deep River"—and the venerable American standards "Sidewalks Of New York," "Avalon" and "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans" (the last played as a dirge), all arranged by Macchia—as is the suite—for strings, woodwinds, percussion, two harps and his expressive, Stan Getz-influenced tenor saxophone, which leads the parade on every number.

While Macchia's talents as a player and arranger are explicit, so are the similarities between Landscapes and its precursor, Emotions. As I wrote then, "...this is by no means a standard 'big band album.' Tempos are slow to moderate, the orchestra is string-laden, and even though Macchia does improvise, it is always in that context...[I]n the end, this is an extended symphonic work with jazz overtones." The same is true of Landscapes, a colorful albeit generally slow-paced medley that is invariably rewarding within the boundaries of Macchia's abbreviated design.

Peter Erskine / Tim Hagans / Norrbotten Big Band
Worth The Wait
Fuzzy Music

Here's more than an hour of tantalizing big band music from Sweden's frozen tundra with plenty of flavor and meat on its bones. By Worth The Wait, composer/arranger/conductor/trumpeter Tim Hagans presumably means that more than thirty years have passed since he and drummer Peter Erskine first met as young members of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and it has taken that long for them to be reunited in a big-band setting, this time with the world-class Norrbotten ensemble from Lulea.

Norrbotten, which in the past has been noted for its avant-garde temperament, swings full-bore on this concert date from October 2006, even more readily with Erskine in the engine room to fire up the coals. Erskine composed four of the album's seven selections, while Hagans wrote the others and arranged everything save Erskine's "Plan 9" and "Scotland, Africa" (with its faint echoes of John LaBarbera's "Dancing Men"), which were arranged by Bill Dobbins.

As if that weren't enough, Hagans designs splendid solos on "Plan 9," Erskine's "Reason To Believe" and his own "You Should See My Office" and "First Jazz." The avuncular Erskine solos on every number and offers a captivating clinic (using brushes and sticks) on the closing "Drum Row," written for him by Hagans. For its part, Norrbotten unveils several inspiring soloists of its own, namely alto saxophonists Johan Horlen and Hakan Brostrom, tenor saxophonist Mats Garberg, trumpeter Dan Johansson, guitarist Ola Bengtsson and pianist Daniel Tilling.

Hagans, who has served as Norrbotten's artistic director for more than a decade, is doing an outstanding job, as anyone who listens to this impressive concert performance should immediately appreciate. The Norrbotten/Hagans/Erskine partnership is so intense and electrifying that it's even Worth The Wait.

Tracks and Personnel

Code Red

Tracks: Code Red; Cats And Dogs; The Other Day; Going Bananas; Subconscious C; Antelope Dance; Ups And Downs.

Personnel: Helge Albin: music director, alto saxophone, flute; Anders Gustafsson, Christer Gustafsson, Roy Wall, Fredrik Davidson, Peter Asplund: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ulf Holmstrom: alto saxophone, alto flute; Inge Petersson: tenor saxophone; Cennet Jonsson: tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Bernt Sjunneson: baritone saxophone, flute; Vincent Nilsson, Olle Tull, Ola Akermen, Ola Nordqvist: trombone; Bjorn Hangsel: bass trombone, tuba; Jacob Karlzon: piano; Patrik Albin: bass; Lennart Gruvstedt: drums.


Tracks: The Sidewalks Of New York; Shenandoah; Landscapes Suite (Golden Fields/Desert Heat/River Rapids/Arctic Chill/Jungle Life/Forest Twilight); Deep River; Avalon; Way Down Yonder In New Orleans.

Personnel: Frank Macchia: tenor saxophone, with the Prague Orchestra; Adam Klemens: conductor.

Worth The Wait

Tracks: Worth The Wait; You Should See My Office; Plan 9; First Jazz; Scotland, Africa; Reason To Believe; Drum Row.

Personnel: Tim Hagans: trumpet, conductor; Bo Strandberg, Dan Johansson, Magnus Ekholm, Tapio Maunuvaara: trumpet; Hakan Brostrom, Johan Horlen, Mats Garberg, Bengt Ek, Per Moberg: reeds; P-O Svanstrom, Magnus Puls, Peter Dahlgren: trombone; Bjorn Hangsel: bass trombone; Daniel Tilling: piano; Ola Bengtsson: guitar; Martin Sjostedt: bass; Peter Erskine: drums.

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