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Extended Analysis

The United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble: Blues at Thirty-Five

By Published: December 12, 2008
The United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble
Blues at Thirty-Five
US Army Blues Jazz Ensemble

The cover art of Blues at Thirty-Five depicts an eerie Edward Hopper Nighthawks-like scene. A corner jazz club, street light shining over an empty sidewalk, nobody around. Based on what's so magnificently offered up in the US Army Blues Jazz Ensemble's 2CD set Blues at Thirty-Five, it can only be assumed that everyone is inside the club and thoroughly enjoying the incredible individual and collective talents of this terrific jazz ensemble. Awesome is such a trite and overused description today, but whatever the next level of big band performance excellence is, this is definitely it.

Founded in 1974, the Ensemble, an element of the US Army Band (aka Pershing's Own), is comprised of some of the finest jazz musicians in the country. While there are a few ghost big bands out there haunting away today, the Ensemble would stand up admirably to any big band—or studio aggregation—now or in the past. Perhaps they'd even surpass some of the original bands in technical ability, fire and tightness. The Ensemble are a powerful group, swinging wonderfully, articulately tight yet tasteful. Their ensemble, solo work and wonderful compositions and arrangements nod respectfully at the greatest of jazz ensembles, from trumpeter Louis Armstrong's and drummer Art Blakey's groups to pianist Count Basie's big band.

From the first swinging bars of drummer MSG Steve Fidyk's brush fire on "Cochise," the excitement, humor, soul and improvisational experimentation is First Class. SFC David T. Brown's clarinet solo flies and SFC Graham Breedlove's cupped trumpet shines. "Lester Thinks Twice" builds in intensity from deep down below and sends MSG John DeSalme off on a tenor saxophone solo foray that would make tenor icon Lester Young's pork pie hat leap. The ensemble's call and response with MSG Craig Fraedrich's burning trumpet solo adds more fire. More MSG, please. "Farewell (For My Father)," written and beautifully performed by saxophonist SFC Joseph Henson, touches the heart. The phenomenal lead work of trumpeter Liesl Whitaker is splendid here and throughout. She has to rate with some of the finest lead trumpeters out there—or rather up there. "Hmmm..." flits around a cycle of fifths cliche in a quirky-jerky manner. Pianist SGM Anthony Nalker takes off on a Thelonious Monk-ish ride and trumpeter SFC Kenneth Rittenhouse adds some funky solo sauce.

The Ensemble draws talent nationwide and each musician brings a unique perspective and musical seasoning to the mix. Louisiana native and trumpeter Graham Breedlove's "NOLA's Lament/NOLA's Return" demonstrates this concept nicely. Dedicated to the people of New Orleans, the womb of jazz, the beautiful lament—and later struttin'—get juices going. Dig Whitaker's take-you-with-me lead trumpet screaming and shaking. Saxophonist/trumpeter Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance," the title cut of the first disc, highlights MSG James Roberts' guitar, high-energy solos by saxophonists SSG Antonio Ortiz and SFC Joseph Henson, and a drum solo that is pure percussion art by Steve Fidyk. "Black Sugar" is soul with a ballsy feature by baritone saxophonist SFC David T. Brown. "Skylark" gets a warm approach here with SFC Harry Watters and his trombone cadre taking us out for a leisurely stroll before moving into a samba sway. "What It's Called" cooks over Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" changes. It's terrific.

Demonstrating the versatility of the Ensemble, and, in a manner reflective of Duke Ellington's or Stan Kenton's highlighting sections or soloists, CD2, entitled "The Blues a la Carte," showcases smaller jazz groups drawn from the big band. From the "Sidewinder" swing of "Last of the Soul Brothers," the straight-ahead hard bop of "Time to Leave" and "Verificatin,'" to the pure Dixieland romp-n-stomps of "Hindustan" (a real joy) and "Lazy River," the Ensemble demonstrate their ability to cook in a number of jazz-related environments. The musicianship is A-1 caliber throughout this enjoyable array of selections. Savor it as a Second Course.

Blues at Thirty-Five is a musical achievement of which all involved can be extremely proud. The recording and production values are as excellent as the talent they document. Whether played by military or civilian musicians, great jazz is great jazz. And this outstanding effort by these soldier-musicians is definitely great big (and small) band jazz.

Happy Anniversary, US Army Blues Jazz Ensemble. You are indeed awesome at Club Thirty-Five. Waiter, another round, please!

Tracks: CD1 (Freedom Jazz Dance): Cochise; Azure Te; Lester Thinks Twice; Farewell (For My Father); Hmmm...; NOLA's Lament/NOLA's Return (For the People of New Orleans and South Louisiana); Freedom Jazz Dance; Black Sugar; Skylark; What It's Called. CD2 (Blues a la Carte): Last of the Soul Brothers; Hindustan; West Coast Blues; Time to Leave; Waltz New; Up A Lazy River; Mantis; Verificatin'; Blues a la Carte; Birdlike; You Are My Sunshine.

Personnel: CW5 Charles H. Vollherbst: director; SSG Antonio L. Orta, SSG Bill E. Linney, SFC Joseph D. Henson, MSG John W. DeSalme, SFC David T. Brown: saxophones; SSG Liesl M. Whitaker, SFC Graham E. Breedlove, SFC Mark A. Wood, SFC Kenneth R. Rittenhouse, SGM Craig C. Fraedrich: trumpets; MSG Matthew F. Niess, SFC Harry F. Watters, MSG William L. Holmes, SFC Jeffrey J. Cortazzo: trombones; SGM Anthony W. Nalker: piano; MSG James F. Roberts: guitar; SSG Regan J. Brough: bass; MSG Steve Fidyk: drums.

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