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Big Band Caravan

Phil Kelly and the NW Prevailing Winds; Eric Essix and the Night Flight Big Band; University of North Texas Two O'Clock Lab Band

By Published: February 2, 2010
Phil Kelly & the Northwest Prevailing Winds
Ballet of the Bouncing Beagles
Origin Records
2009

The Ballet of the Bouncing Beagles, Marius Nordal

writes in the liner notes to composer / arranger Phil Kelly
Phil Kelly
Phil Kelly
b.1937
composer/conductor
's latest recording, "was inspired by an actual photograph of Phil's two beagles jumping up in the air together in his backyard." Brushing aside the source, what is important is that "Beagles" is a brilliant chart—as are all the others on this charming and colorful odyssey orchestrated by Kelly and his debonair Northwest Prevailing Winds.

Kelly is a master of tempo and dynamics, as the listener can appreciate throughout the wide-ranging session, which spans the rhythmic spectrum from burner to ballad, the geographic landscape from New Orleans to Latin America, with a soupcon of smooth jazz ("Grover," Kelly's tribute to Grover Washington, Jr.

Grover Washington, Jr.
Grover Washington, Jr.
1943 - 1999
saxophone
, showcasing Travis Ranney on soprano sax) appended to season the medley. Above all, Kelly's music is fun to hear and to play, a tendency that is reflected in his choice of song titles, some of which are puns ("Play Tonic Budz," a.k.a. "Just Friends"), others simply clever plays on words, whether in English ("Beagles," "Ewe Doo on Bubbas Shoux," "Top Fuel Pete vs. the Trav-ski") or Spanish ("Estos Frijoles Causa Me Falta Pasar a Los Vientos").

Once the music begins, however, Prevailing Winds is all business, unblinkingly staring down Kelly's elaborate charts and dispatching them with relative ease. Besides arranging, Kelly wrote every tune save Phil Abraham

's venerable "Limehouse Blues," played at an easygoing tempo that accentuates the "blues." "Beagles" is a buoyant mid-tempo charmer, "Ewe Doo" a New Orleans-inspired quasi-march. Kelly salutes his rain-swept Pacific Northwest home with the shapely bossa "Rainshadow," his self-reliant compositional base with the intrepid "Note-o-Riot-ee." Rounding out the pleasurable session is "B.D. Bunz," a bluesy promenade with a palpable "film noir" temperament (or as Nordal puts it, "a leisurely Saturday saunter amongst the congested streets, lush parks, brick walls and fire escapes of Manhattan").

The irrepressible tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb

Pete Christlieb
Pete Christlieb
b.1945
saxophone
is featured on "Bunz," as he is on several other numbers. While the soloists aren't always named, in the liners or elsewhere, Christlieb's sound and style are unmistakable. He is heard again on "Play Tonic," "Limehouse Blues" (wherein he cleverly cites "Pennies from Heaven"), "Beagles," "Ewe Doo" and "Bunz," and engages in earnest hand-to-hand combat with fellow tenors Ranney, Pete Brewer and Randy Lee on the album's spirited finale, "Top Fuel Pete." Trumpeter Jay Thomas
Jay Thomas
Jay Thomas
b.1949
is front and center with Christlieb and trombonist Dan Marcus on "Ewe Doo," and that's most likely Thomas again on "Beagles." Marcus and trumpeter Vern Sielert complement Christlieb on "Play Tonic," while Marcus and baritone Bill Ramsay are the probable suspects (with alto Jerry Dodgion
Jerry Dodgion
Jerry Dodgion
b.1932
) on "Limehouse Blues." Guitarist Grant Geissman
Grant Geissman
Grant Geissman
b.1953
guitar
and one of the band's pianists—John Hansen or Pat Coil—share exemplary blowing space on "Rainshadow."

By any measure, Beagles is another impressive outing by Kelly and Prevailing Winds, one that must be counted among the early front-runners in any 2010 Album of the Year sweepstakes.

Eric Essix and the Night Flight Big Band
Superblue
Magic City Music
2009

Any big band recording that opens with Bobbie Gentry's pop hit "Ode to Billy Joe" and includes Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" suggests reasonable cause for concern, which is borne out to some degree on Superblue by guitarist Eric Essix

Eric Essix
Eric Essix

guitar
's penchant for rock beats to reanimate his role models, from B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
b.1925
guitar, electric
, Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
b.1945
guitar
and T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
1910 - 1975
guitar, electric
to Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
, Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
and Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
. The Alabama-based Night Flight Big Band is solid, giving Essix an impressive stage on which to perform. Too often, however, its best efforts are undermined by charts that lumber along without much energy or charm.

The best of the lot is probably Montgomery's "Sundown," an engaging medium-tempo vamp on which Essix is cool and steady, a la Montgomery, as is pianist Ray Reach

Ray Reach
Ray Reach
b.1948
piano
. Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
's "Speedball," an amiable swinger with trim solos by Essix, Reach, tenor Ed Berry and trumpeter Tommy Stewart
Tommy Stewart
Tommy Stewart
b.1939
trumpet
, is no more than a short stride behind. Dave Grusin
Dave Grusin
Dave Grusin
b.1934
piano
's ruminative "Modaji" has its moments, and is enhanced by guest artist Lou Marini
Lou Marini
Lou Marini

saxophone
's brief yet persuasive soprano solo. Elsewhere, the rock beat is predominant, weighing down any tendency to swing, even though everyone seems to be giving the possibility his best shot. Tenor Gary Wheat offers respectable tenor solos on the dreary "Rainy Night," the drab "Last Call" and Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
1938 - 2008
trumpet
's shambling "Superblue," and Reach is likable on piano and Hammond B3, but aside from Essix's creditable guitar work there's not much else worth enumerating.

In the realm of miscalculations there is one vocal, by unimposing Annie McClendon

Annie McClendon
Annie McClendon
b.1978
vocalist
on the Arlen / Mercer standard "Come Rain or Come Shine," which ends with one of three disquieting fades; the others are on "Billy Joe" and "Georgia." Essix clearly has talent, and is worth hearing; if the rock substratum isn't distasteful, chances are you may find Superblue highly entertaining.

University of North Texas Two O'Clock Lab Band
Too Two
North Texas Jazz
2009

To those who question the future emplacement of big band jazz, the answer is clear that a large measure of it abides in in Denton, Texas, home to the formidable UNT Lab Bands that have made the university's name synonymous with world-class undergraduate musicianship. Students come and students go, but the excellence of the UNT Jazz Studies program remains unimpaired. The same is true of the faculty, an assessment that is manifest on Too Two, the first recording by the UNT Two O'Clock Lab Band under its new director, Jay Saunders, who has accepted the baton from recently retired Regents Professor James Riggs.

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