Nova Jazz Orchestra / UNT One O'Clock Lab Band / Frank Macchia / Omar Sosa & NDR Big Band
On October Arrival, Waterman proves beyond any doubt that he is a superb composer, arranger and soloist, and that he has assembled an orchestra that is capable of unraveling whatever design he proposes. This is high-class contemporary big band jazz with only one caveat: the 44 minute playing time is less than generous for CDs these days.
Russ Spiegel's Big Bang
To make clear his purpose, guitarist / composer Russ Spiegel calls this ensemble "big bang," not big band. And big bangs are what Spiegel's German-stocked group produces in abundance on this incendiary concert date, recorded in April 1999 in Aschaffenburg, from "Bird Droppings," Spiegel's exhilarating salute to Charlie Parker, right on through the soul-drenched finale, "Chunky." Spiegel and trumpeter Christian Meyers are the sprightly soloists on "Droppings," as they are on "Chunky."
Six of the seven numbers are original compositions by Spiegel. The other is Lionel Hampton / Benny Goodman's venerable "Flying Home," taken at a more moderate tempo than the original but with no less a propensity to swing. The same is true of Spiegel's other charts, whether deciphering the hard-bop canon ("Fourth Floor"), bearing emphatic witness ("The Gospel According to Agnes"), scurrying from discord to clarity ("Weedeater") or revisiting the time-honored blues ("P. Nose," featuring trombonist Alan Jacobson). Everything Spiegel touches turns to swing.
Spiegel's sturdy ensemble, two of whom (saxophonists Markus Lihocky and Peter "Lines" Linhart) were (and perhaps still are) members of the Aschaffenburger Big Band, is equal to the task, sprinting through his impulsive charts with abandon. The rhythm section (pianist Christoph Sanger, bassist Rudi Engel, drummer Andreas Neubauer) never lets the tempos drag, providing a spacious and secure comfort zone for brass and reeds while enlivening the various soloists. Spiegel shines with Lihocky (alto) on "Flying Home" and with Sanger, alto Volker Stegmann and trumpeter Thomas Siffling on "Fourth Floor." Stegmann and Sanger are eloquent on "The Gospel," Neubauer and tenor Alberto Menendez ditto on "Weedeater."
Even though recorded (technically speaking) "a century ago," Spiegel's ensemble and charts sound as fresh and alive as today. Since then, Spiegel has returned to New York City and formed another orchestra; even so, echoes of his "big bang" continue to reverberate long after the fact, and the album is warmly recommended.
Toronto Jazz Orchestra
Under a Tree
The admirable Toronto Jazz Orchestra has released three albums to date, the most recent The Path in 2009 and Under a Tree six years earlier. As was noted in reviewing The Path [January 2010], the TJO is good, really good; and it can swing, really swing. While there are of course dissimilar charts on Under a Tree, everything else applies. The ensemble is razor-sharp, individually and collectively. To put it another way, everyone is in sync, in tune and on the same page. A seasoned orchestra, no doubt about that.
Eight of the album's 10 selections were recorded live in May 2003 at the Pilot Tavern in Toronto, and half were written by members of the orchestra including conductor Josh Grossman's jaunty "Together at Last," a clever variation on the standard "Alone Together." Bassist Mike Smith wrote "Alicante," pianist Laila Biali the turbulent "From Everlasting to Everlasting" (on which she also solos), bass trombonist Chris Hunt "First X's Free," guitarist Todd Elsliger the sensuous "Kissing." The groovy title song, which vaguely echoes Thad Jones' "Kids Are Pretty People," was composed by Canadian legend Phil Nimmons, "Reverence" by Paul Ashwell, "In Place" by Dafydd Hughes, "The Far Side" by Greg Bush, the raucous, Mingus-inspired "Return of the Shuffleupagus" by Andrew Jones.
Although the ensemble, as noted, is alert and focused, the solos are of a more variable nature. Most are suitable but few rise far above the norm. Pianist Erin Gray is respectable on "Reverence," as are trumpeter Will Loach and alto Gareth Lewis on "Under a Tree," Gray and soprano Mark Laver on "Alicante," tenor Jonathan Kay on "Together at Last," Kay and bassist Smith on "In Place," Laver and trombonist R.J. Satchithanthanan on "First X's," guitarist Elsliger on "Kissing," Grossman on "The Far Side," tenor Chris Hunsburger and trombonist Joel Green on "Shuffleupagus." Even so, the orchestra's primary strength lies in its unflagging togetherness. For an explicit example, try "The Far Side," which opens and closes with hair-raising a cappella chorales by the brass; the surging unison passages in "Shuffleupagus," or the trim ensemble work that brightens every other tune.