Big Bands: Fred Ho, Roy Hargrove, Brooklyn Big Band, Charles Tolliver
Fred Ho and the The Green Monster Big Band
Celestial Green Monster
Brooklyn Big Band
Live at Sweet Rhythm
Charles Tolliver Big Band
Emperor March (Live at the Blue Note)
"The quintessential American orchestra is not the symphony, but the big band. If so-called 'jazz' is 'America's classical music' ... then its attendant large ensemble is the 'jazz' orchestra, popularly called the big band." So Fred Ho begins his liner notes to Celestial Green Monster. Ho goes on to define "classical" as "not something stuck in the past... but rather enduring, vital and constantly relevant and revolutionary." If Ho hits this mark, however, it's mostly in spirit. Celestial Green Monster sports its leader naked on its cover (behind a discreetly placed baritone saxophone) and it seems to be something of a summing up for Ho, who's been battling colon cancer since 2006; the tunes range from Ho's first composition for big band (1974's "Blues for the Freedom Fighters," played with great swinging passion here) to his 1976 epic "The Struggle for the New World Suite" to the '60s "Spiderman Theme" to (yes, really) that anthem of drug-rock excess, "In-a- Gadda-Da-Vida" (used to "explore the journey of humanity's ascension on this planet and the dark rise of class and gender stratification as an outgrowth of the human conquest, domination and primacy over the natural world"). Is it good? Well... sometimes. Ho's baritone really sings on the "Vida"'s third movement and there's true fire in 1975's "Liberation Genesis" but it all sounds too familiar; one wishes Ho's music was as progressive as his social agenda.
There's nothing terribly new mined in trumpeter Roy Hargrove's Emergence, either. But Hargrove, who's lodged himself firmly in the mainstream for most of his career, has never much claimed to be an innovator; he simply plays about the meanest trumpet on the planet and does it with exceeding grace and extraordinary verve. Though he's logged appreciable time in large ensembles over the years, Emergence is his first disc as the leader of such and he acquits himself passably well, shepherding a crack 19-piece band through a mixed program of originals and standards. All-in-all, though, it's a regrettably restrained, big-band grab bag of styles Hargrove has dabbled in over the yearsa bit of modal bop, a few Latin numbers, some plaintive balladry and a dollop of funk thrown in for good measure. There are clear missesan up-tempo "September in the Rain" that would sound at home on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show; a rather cavalier "Everytime We Say Goodbye"and, sadly, too few moments that pop. Frank Lacy's "Requiem" has some real power and Chucho Valdes' "Mambo for Roy"which uses Valdes' own arrangementis a sly keeper, but little else really distinguishes the disc.
Saxophonists/composers/arrangers Craig Bailey and Tim Armacost have been co-leading the Brooklyn Big Band since 2000; Live at Sweet Rhythm is the group's first disc and it's a splendid debut from one of the best-kept secrets in town. Full of thorny charts and impassioned, raucous playing, the record never lags. Though the band seldom departs from the mainstream, it never zigs when it can zag. Much of the fun comes from the space Armacost and Bailey leave in their writing (the sole standardEllington's "Take the Coltrane"for example, is given only the barest framework and largely improvised every show). As the result, most everything the band plays, be it screaming blues or barn-burning bop, sounds like a sudden discovery: fresh, vibrant, innovative anddare we say itnew. The horns are always kicking in a beat or two early or swooping when they're expected to leap or flurrying when you'd think they'd lay out. To single out any track would do an injustice to the others, but it's worth adding that this is a band that knows how to design a set; give a listen to this disc and you'll never miss a hometown gig again.
After a too-long period of low-visibility, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, a virtuosic vet of the '60s progressive scene, began convening an extraordinary big band in 2003. In 2007, Tolliver picked up a well-deserved Grammy-nomination for the group's With Love; dense and dramatic, lyrical and challenging, fiery and fierce, the live followup, Emperor March, is even better. A master of dynamics, Tolliver's pieces switch tempos, shift moods, change formation and dart from soft to loud and back again with staggering, deceptive ease and his dexterous 16-piece band flies through his complex arrangements with the agility of a group a fraction of its size. It helps, of course, when you've got A-list tenorists like Billy Harper (who blows beautifully on "I Want To Talk About You) and Marcus Strickland (especially ferocious on the superb modal opener, "On the Nile"); either longtime Tolliver cohort Stanley Cowell or young lion Anthony Wonsey swinging in the piano chair and bass legend Reggie Workman on hand to tie every twist and turn together. You want "enduring, vital and constantly relevant and revolutionary"? Here it is.
Tracks and Personnel
Celestial Green Monster
Tracks: Spiderman Theme; In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (In the Garden of Eden); Liberation Genesis; Blues to the Freedom Fighters; The Struggle for a New World Suite.
Personnel: Fred Ho: leader/baritone sax; Bobby Zankel: alto sax; Jim Hobbs: alto sax; Hafez Modirzadeh: tenor sax; Salim Washington: tenor sax; Stanton Davis: trumpet; Brian Kilpatrick: trumpet; Samie El-Amin: trumpet; Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Robert Pilkington: trombone; Marty Wehner: trombone; Richard Harper: trombone; Earl MacIntyre: contrabass trombone; David Harris: contrabass trombone: Art Hirahara: piano/electric keyboard; Wes Brown: electric and acoustic bass: Royal Hartigan: drums; Abraham Gomez-Delgado: vocals; Mary Halverson: vocals.
Tracks: Velera; Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey; My Funny Valentine; Mambo for Roy; Requiem; September In the Rain;Every Time We Say Goodbye; La Puerta; Roy Allan; Tschpiso; Trust.
Personnel: Roy Hargrove: leader, composer, arranger, trumpet, fluegelhorn, vocal; Frank Greene: trumpet and flugelhorn; Greg Gisbert, : trumpet and flugelhorn; Darren Barrett: trumpet and flugelhorn; Ambrose Akinmisure: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jason Jackson: trombone; Vincent Chandler: trombone; Saunders Sermons: trombone; Max Siegel: bass trombone, arranger; Bruce Williams: alto saxophone, flute; Justin Robinson: alto saxophone, flute; Norbert Stachel: tenor saxophone, flute; Keith Loftis: tenor saxophone, flute; Jason Marshall: baritone saxophone, flute, reeds; Gerald Clayton: piano, arranger; Saul Rubin: guitar; Danton Boller: bass; Montez Coleman: drums; Roberta Gambarini: vocals.
Brooklyn Big Band: Live at Sweet Rhythm
Tracks: Long Haired Girl; Brazilian Bop; Take The Coltran; East of Enid; Animate; Quiet Time; My Blues; Announcement Funk.
Personnel: Craig Bailey: alto sax/flute; Mark Gross: alto sax/flute; Tim Armacost: tenor sax/flute; Keith Loftis: tenor sax/flute; Mitch Froman: tenor sax/flute; Terry Goss: baritome sax/flute; Riley Mullins: trumpet; Dwayne Eubanks: trumpet; Larry Gilliespie: trumpet; Dave Zalud: trumpet; Jason Jackson: trombone; Dion Tucker: trombone; Mike Fahn: trombone; Johannes Pfannkuck: bass trombone; Gene Jackson: drums; David Berkman: piano; Joris Teepe: bass.
Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note
Tracks: On the Nile; I Want to Talk About You; Emperor March; Chedlike; In the Trenches; Toughin.'
Personnel: Charles Tolliver: trumpet; Michael Williams: lead trumpet; Keyon Harrold: trumpet; Cameron Johnson: trumpet; David Weiss: trumpet; Mike Dease: trombone; Stafford Hunter: trombone; Jason Jackson: trombone; Ernest Stuart: trombone; Aaron Johnson: bass trombone; Bill Saxton: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute; Bruce Williams: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute; Todd Bashore: alto saxophone, flute, piccolo; Billy Harper: tenor saxophone; Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone; Jason Marshall: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Stanley Cowell: piano; Anthony Wonsey: piano; Reggie Workman: bass; Gene Jackson: drums.