Nova Jazz Orchestra / UNT One O'Clock Lab Band / Frank Macchia / Omar Sosa & NDR Big Band
As one would assume, the band's soloists are assertive and articulate, enhancing the album's stature with their incisive statements. Among the more outspoken are trumpeter Clynt Yerkes, flugel Pete Clagett, alto / soprano Sam Reid (showcased on "Li'l Darlin'"), alto Colin Hauser, tenors Sylvester Onyejiaka and Brian Clancy, pianist Ben Haugland, guitarist Ryan Davidson, bassist Ryan Hagler and drummer Michael D'Angelo (who anchors the ensemble's razor-sharp rhythm section). UNT's lab bands have another audible advantage, a state-of-the-art recording studio that clarifies every note. Of course, that can be a liability, but not in this case. Wiest and his skillful apprentices have negated that risk while affirming that the Grammy nominating panel knew what it was about. Lab 2009 fairly earned its endorsement, and should warrant your own as well.
Folk Songs for Jazzers
Chances are readers will have heard most if not all of the well-known (and oft-performed) themes on saxophonist Frank Macchia's latest album, Folk Songs for Jazzers. Even so, it's a sure bet no-one ever heard any of them played quite this way. Macchia, as is his custom, wrote all the charts, and each one is a paragon of iridescence and ingenuity. As icing on the cake, Macchia has assembled an all-star cast of Los Angeles-area sidemen (plus vocalists Tierney Sutton and Ellis Hall) to breathe life into his eclectic yet well-designed concepts. As a press release accompanying the album asserts, these are "innovative versions of classic folk songs," an appraisal that, even though low-key, hits the nail squarely on the head.
Surprises? Yes, in almost every stanza, and most of them eminently pleasing. Perusing some random examples: "Red River Valley" as an amorous blues (sung and scatted by Sutton); "Oh! Susanna" as a Gil Evans-tailored swinger; "Did You Ever See a Lassie?" as a Charles Mingus-inspired jazz waltz; "The Arkansas Traveler" as assertive fusion jazz; "Hush, Little Baby" as an (appropriately) laid-back samba; "Blue Tail Fly" as a barroom-seasoned flag-waver; "Kumbaya" as a snail-like dirge with an eccentric John Coltrane temper; "On Top of Old Smokey" as a down-home sermon complete with muted trumpet intro, gin mill piano and raunchy tenor and guitar solos. What's most amazing is that almost everything works, and works remarkably well. Even though the very idea may strike some as ludicrous, it's almost as if these venerable songs had been written to sound exactly like this.
A musician in the reed section for a Macchia recording date had best bring all his horns and woodwinds, as Macchia is sure to have him doubling, tripling, quadrupling or even more. Sal Lozano plays half a dozen reeds / winds on Folk Songs, Bob Sheppard and Jay Mason eight apiece. But like the intrepid leader he is, Macchia doesn't ask anyone to bear any burden he won't lay on his own shoulders. To inspire the troops, Macchia plays no less than ten instruments (tenor sax, piccolo flute, alto flute, bass flute, contrabass flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet). There are solos along the way by piccolos, alto clarinet, tuba, bass sax and baritone horn as well as the more customary soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, trombone and guitar.
Several of the arrangements defy description, which is why they've not been summarized. These include "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Polly Wolly Doodle," "Tom Dooley," "Amazing Grace" (sung by Hall) and "The Erie Canal." Suffice to say that they too echo Macchia's whimsical approach to any task at hand. Most are rhythmically challenging, a circumstance that Macchia has surmounted by placing the peerless Peter Erskine at the drum kit to guide an agile rhythm section that includes pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist Grant Geissman, bassist Trey Henry and Ray Frisby on vibes, bongos, tambourine, shaker and spoons. Macchia, Lozano, Sheppard, Mason, Wayne Bergeron (the ensemble's lone trumpeter), trombonists Alex Iles, Kevin Porter and Bill Reichenbach (baritone horn on "Hush, Little Baby"), Ranier and Geissman make good use of their solo turns.