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Big Band Caravan

Stan Kenton Alumni Band / Dave Lisik Orchestra / New Zealand School of Music Big Band

By Published: April 5, 2010
Stan Kenton Alumni Band
Have Band Will Travel
Summit Records
2010

There was a time (often referred to as "the good old days") when the phrase Have Band Will Travel would have been commonplace, as popular touring bands traversed the country on an almost daily basis to brave one-night stands or longer engagements in ballrooms, nightclubs, auditoriums or other venues. These days, one can count the number of traveling bands on the fingers of one hand and still have enough uncounted digits left to latch onto some fried chicken or corn on the cob.

Among the few exceptions to the rule is the Stan Kenton

Stan Kenton
Stan Kenton
1911 - 1979
piano
Alumni Band, formerly known as the Mike Vax
Mike Vax
Mike Vax

trumpet
Big Band Featuring Alumni of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Thanks mainly to Vax's tireless efforts, the band has visited a part of the country almost every year for more than a decade, and has produced almost half a dozen CDs embodying music performed on those tours. True, these aren't year-long excursions (one month at best, and usually more concise), but given the desolate position of big bands these days even that is quite a remarkable achievement. And for those on the receiving end of the band's performances, it's far better than nothing. For many, it represents their only exposure to a live big band playing music from the Stan Kenton era and beyond.

The fifteen selections on Have Band were recorded during the ensemble's 2009 spring tour in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As always, themes associated with the Kenton orchestra are interspersed with standards and exciting new charts by members of the band and others. The album opens on both fronts with Ray Wetzel

Ray Wetzel
b.1924
's venerable "Intermission Riff," marvelously re-scored by Kim Richmond
Kim Richmond
Kim Richmond

saxophone
in the image of Supersax, using trombonist Carl Fontana
Carl Fontana
Carl Fontana
1928 - 2003
trombone
's solo from the album Kenton In Hi Fi as the basis for a swinging new anthem. Solos are by tenor Alex Murzyn and bassist Chris Symer, tasteful introduction by pianist Liz Sesler-Beckman. Following trombonist Dale DeVoe's opulent arrangement of the ballad "Softly As I Leave You," the band performs the first of five original compositions, Paul Baker's incendiary "El Viento Caliente." The others are Rich Woolworth's impish "Five & Dime" (in 5/4 and 10/8 time),Steve Huffsteter's breezy "Joint Tenancy" (a.k.a "Alone Together," on which he and fellow trumpeter Don Rader
Don Rader
b.1935
trumpet
happily share the premises), Eric Richards
Eric Richards
b.1953
bass, electric
' free-wheeling "Crescent City Stomp" (performed twice, the second as a shorter "radio edit") and the late great pianist Bob Florence
Bob Florence
Bob Florence
1932 - 2008
band/orchestra
's "Our Garden," beautifully sung by Scott Whitfield
Scott Whitfield
Scott Whitfield
b.1963
trombone
and Ginger Berglund who also penned the lyrics.

The Kenton-inspired numbers are Johnny Richards

' "Artemis and Apollo," Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan
1927 - 1996
sax, baritone
's aptly named "Swing House" and the standard "Long Ago and Far Away" (arranged for the Kenton orchestra by Lennie Niehaus
Lennie Niehaus
Lennie Niehaus
b.1929
composer/conductor
). The other admirable charts are by Richards ("Tonight"), Richmond ("Invitation," on which he's the featured soloist on alto) and baritone Joel Kaye ("The Shadow of Your Smile"). Whitfield and Berglund reappear on Steve Allen
Steve Allen
1921 - 2000
composer/conductor
's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Besides those already named, the band's engaging soloists include Kaye (enchanting on "Long Ago and Far Away"), trumpeter Vax, trombonists Whitfield and Roy Wiegand, tenor Pete Gallio, baritone Keith Kaminsky and drummer Gary Hobbs who anchors the sharp and sure-handed rhythm section.

Unlike other "road" albums, Have Band rarely endures the uneven sonic bumps that bedevil many concert performances. Hats off to engineer Tom Johnson for that. And hats off to Vax (Kenton class of 1970-72) and everyone in the band for producing such a marvelous recording under less than optimal conditions. As singer Toni Tennille writes in a brief tribute: "This CD is for all lovers of the innovative Kenton sound played by great musicians, and also for young Jazz musicians who will find so much to admire and learn from here." You couldn't sum it up much better than that.

Dave Lisik Orchestra
Coming Through Slaughter: The Bolden Legend
Galloping Cow Music
2010

The springboard for this ambitious debut album by Canadian composer Dave Lisik

Dave Lisik
Dave Lisik
b.1974
trumpet
is Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter, based on the life of the legendary New Orleans cornetist and bon vivant Charles "Buddy" Bolden. Using a modern approach, Lisik strives to renovate musically the threadbare tapestry of a bygone era in which Bolden is purported to have conceived the art form we know as jazz.

How does he fare? Quite well, actually. As with any thematic music, meaning is in the ear of the beholder, especially true when the source is nebulous, as it is in this case. However, using a twenty-five piece big band as his palette, Lisik manages to paint a credible albeit contemporary portrait of Bolden's life and times, his connection to the archaic origins of Jazz, and his gradual descent into madness (Bolden spent the last twenty-four years of his life in mental hospital). In doing so, Lisik leans heavily on the talents of trumpeter Tim Hagans

Tim Hagans
Tim Hagans
b.1954
trumpet
, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin
b.1966
saxophone
, trombonist Luis Bonilla
Luis Bonilla
Luis Bonilla

trombone
and pianist Amy Rempel
Amy Rempel
b.1985
piano
as paramount soloists, and on drummer Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson
b.1964
drums
as the rhythm section's unyielding glue.

The song titles as well are meant to be suggestive, with each track save one based on a brief passage from Ondaatje's book. The exception is "Whistling in the Way of Bolden," whose random dissonance and contrapuntal escalation are designed to exemplify the phrase "ecstasy before death" (or "ecstacy," as it appears thrice in the booklet). As the album advances, the discord becomes more frequent and pronounced, as in the well-named "Horror of Noise," "Suicide of the Hands" or "Parade." While this may prove displeasing to some, it is in keeping with the album's purpose, which is to chronicle Bolden's slide into dementia. Besides Hagans, the soloists on "Noise" include tenors Art Edmaiston and Dustin Laurenzi and baritone Tom Link, who do so simultaneously in the best tradition of unfettered Jazz, as do Hagans, Bonilla and McCaslin on "Suicide." Bolden's depressing odyssey comes to an end in the two-part "Parade," in which the polarizing voices in his head cause him to stop playing in the middle of a parade and simply walk away, never to return. The song ends with an appropriate fade-out by pianist Rempel. The cheerless epilogue, "Bleach Out to Grey," is centered on the single known photograph of Bolden, whose negative (in Ondaatje's novel) is dissolved by the photographer in an acid bath.

Lisik deserves commendation for undertaking such a daunting enterprise, which he first envisioned as a doctoral dissertation in Canada (he has since moved to New Zealand to join the faculty at the New Zealand School of Music). Although one can't know how someone else would have handled the task, Lisik has completed it with flying colors—thanks in part to splendid support from Hagans, McCaslin, Bonilla, Wilson and the ensemble. It must be noted that the album won't suit everyone's taste; it is more cerebral than candid, and its jagged edges can stun the senses and fray the nerves. But Lisik is telling a story, parts of which are ambivalent musically, as they were in life. Weighed on its own terms, Coming Through Slaughter is a well-drawn and admirable work of art.

New Zealand School of Music Big Band
Run for Cover
Tbone Records
2009

Under the steady guidance of music director Rodger Fox

Rodger Fox
b.1953
trombone
, The New Zealand School of Music Big Band has come a long way, and Run for Cover, its second CD, is explicitly engaging from start to finish. To further amplify the enterprise, Fox has enlisted the services of three well-known American guest artists—pianist Bill Cunliffe
Bill Cunliffe
Bill Cunliffe
b.1956
piano
, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard and trumpeter Clay Jenkins
Clay Jenkins
Clay Jenkins
b.1964
trumpet
—and three of his colleagues from the NZSM: guitarist Nick Granville
Nick Granville
Nick Granville
b.1978
guitar
, drummer Lance Philip and Alex Nyman, who plays EWI on Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller
b.1959
bass, electric
's funky title selection.

While every number is pleasing, the album's centerpiece is Cunliffe's bravura arrangement of the first movement from Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 on which he solos with Philip, tenor Mike Isaacs and trombonist Dean Scott. Cunliffe composed and arranged the swaying "Havana," Jenkins the lyrical "K & T," on which his agile trumpet is in the forefront. Sheppard is showcased on Bill Liston's "All Things Old and New" (a.k.a. "Body and Soul"), Granville on Don Sebesky

Don Sebesky
b.1937
arranger
's lustrous "Alcazar," trumpeter Alex French on Benny Golson
Benny Golson
Benny Golson
b.1929
sax, tenor
's "I Remember Clifford." There is one vocal, by Penelope Kibby, who sings passably on Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
's urbane "Senor Blues."

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