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Big Band Caravan

Louie Bellson/Clark Terry; Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra; The Whit Williams Big Band

By Published: March 5, 2008
It's a marvelous work, bright and lyrical, that opens slowly, gains momentum and evokes various moods as it shines the spotlight on a number of the orchestra's world-class soloists before ramming through some turbulence and coming to a smooth and trouble-free landing. The urbane "Jazz Suite," which runs for nearly eighteen minutes, is presented by an octet led by trumpeter Malone and including guest Karen Rotenberg on English horn. As on "Conversations," there's scarcely a fleeting moment that is less than engaging.

Besides the groovy "Mod's Mode," Disc 1 embodies Malone's rhythmic "Patita" (on which he is featured on flugelhorn with bassist Paul Novotny) and McMurdo's soulful "Song For Antony," dedicated to the memory of Antony Roberts (solos by tenor Alex Dean and guitarist Reg Schwager). Adderley's "Wabash" swings hard behind bristling commentary by altos John Johnson and Don Englert, as does Trane's "Impressions," on which Quinsin Nachoff wrests every ounce of emotion from his tenor. McMurdo arranged "Over The Rainbow," a showcase for Johnson's expressive alto.

Now that Rob McConnell has retired the Boss Brass for good, McMurdo's orchestra is arguably the best Canada has to offer. No argument here. This is a superb ensemble, an opinion that Nimmons 'n' More serves only to underscore. The album, by the way, is available only through McMurdo's web site, www.davemcmurdo.com

The Whit Williams "Now's The Time" Big Band
Featuring Slide Hampton And Jimmy Heath
MAMA Records
2007

It's always a pleasure to say hello to a new big band, especially one as capable as this—even if the ensemble in question, Whit Williams' "Now's The Time" Big Band, isn't really that new after all. Williams has been a force on the music scene in Baltimore, MD, as a leader, player and educator for more than half a century. Although he has been fronting his band there since 1981, this is, strange as that may seem, its first-ever recording. With such heavyweights as trombonist Slide Hampton and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath lending their king-size talents to the endeavor, it was almost worth the wait.

The album can be divided roughly into two parts, with Heath marvelous on the first, Hampton a mirror image on the second, while the band is sharp and responsive from end to end. Heath wrote "This Is What It Is," "Losing Game" and "Without You, No Me" and arranged Kenny Dorham's "Una Mas." Hampton composed "A Day In Copenhagen" and "Diana" and arranged Thelonious Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie." Williams' "I Remember Tangle," "The Radiator Man Is Well" and "Get Home Before Dark" round out the splendid program. Vince Norman arranged "Tangle" and "Get Home," Mat Belzer "Radiator Man."

Even though soloists aren't listed, it's rather easy to recognize Heath's strapping tenor on "Una Mas" and "Tangle," Hampton's smooth trombone on "Radiator Man," "Copenhagen," "Diana" and "Rootie Tootie." The others are more problematic. In the liner notes, Rusty Hassan writes that Williams "shows his versatility by soloing on his various reeds," but doesn't say what they are. That's probably him playing tenor on "Losing Game" and "Copenhagen," perhaps alto on "Get Home," baritone on "What It Is" and "Without You," bass clarinet on "Una Mas." But those are only guesses. Drummer Harold Summey adds forceful commentary on "Copenhagen" and "Una Mas," the last of which ends with perhaps the world's most prolonged shout chorus.

A dynamic, long-overdue and warmly recommended debut by a local jazz legend whose music and band deserve a much wider audience.

Rich Wetzel And His Groovin Higher Orchestra
The Mayn Thing
Groovin Higher
2007

Trumpeter Rich Wetzel, another of Maynard Ferguson's many admirers, channels the late Monarch of the High C's with an earnest homage comprised for the most part of songs from MF's well-read and oft-quoted book of favorites. Wetzel's electrifying high-register trumpet is showcased throughout, as is his intrepid Groovin Higher Jazz Orchestra on this sharp and strapping session, its first in a studio after a pair of live albums.

There are some random departures from the Ferguson canon, two apiece by vocalists Steve Stefanowicz and Rebecca Gonzales. Stefanowicz is heard on "Georgia On My Mind" and "How Sweet It Is," Gonzales on "My Romance" and "What Kind Of Fool Am I." Wetzel's scream trumpet, which adds a punctuation mark on several numbers, is featured most prominently on the ubiquitous theme from Rocky ("Gonna Fly Now") and the ballad "Tenderly." Trombonist Tim Schartz and tenor John Beach share center stage on "A Country Boy," baritone Keith Klawitter and trombonist Jenny Kellogg on "Superbone Meets The Badman," Klawitter and drummer Tim Malland on Denis Di Blasio's rhythmic "Coconut Champagne."

The fast-paced curtain-raiser, Chip McNeill's "Break The Ice," introduces Kellogg, Beach and alto Dan Wager. Guitarist Lonnie Mardis solos trimly on "Chameleon" and "Gonna Fly Now," pianist Jim Cochran on "My Romance" and "What Kind Of Fool," trumpeter Tracey Hooker (with Wager) on Don Menza's aptly named "Groove Blues." In sum, a heartfelt bow to the maestro whose fresh readings of old standbys should please most big-band enthusiasts even as they remind them that there has been only one Maynard Ferguson.

University Of South Florida Jazz Ensembles
Suncoast 2007
USF Jazz
2007

Suncoast 2007, the most recent in a continuing series of albums from the University Of South Florida (and the first I've heard in five years), isn't entirely a big-band album; in fact, only four of its ten selections are performed by the large-scale Jazz Ensemble 1, another five by USF's Jazztet and one by the Jazz Combo. Seven of the ten numbers were composed and/or arranged by students. Ryan Pate wrote "Hidden Beneath" and "Isle Of San Lorenzo" for the Jazzet, Todd Wright "UFO" for the Jazz Combo, Jeff Fairbanks "Nor'Easter Suite, Part 1" for the Jazz Ensemble.

The Ensemble opens with "Nor'Easter" and Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write A Book," and is heard later on Pat Metheny's "Minuano" and Bob Borgstede's "Nola's Waltz." "Minuano" was arranged by Fairbanks, "Book" by Rich Van Voorst, "Waltz" by Dave Stamps. The Jazztet also performs "Stella by Starlight," Wayne Shorter's "Tom Thumb" and Charlie Parker's "Diverse."

The album evidently was produced with the resources at hand, which are minimal. The disc is encased in a slim cardboard jacket with no insert or notes. Song titles are listed, as are the names of composers and arrangers, but neither personnel nor soloists are identified. It is true, however, that good things sometimes come in small (and modest) packages, and the sundry ensembles are alert and well-prepared, thanks to directors Tom Brantley, Chuck Owen and Jack Wilkins.



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