Earl MacDonald: Re:Visions (2010)
There is a reason that the saying, "keeping it fresh" is rarely uttered in the same sentence as "17-piece jazz orchestra"because a large orchestra in the world of jazz tends to maneuver about as delicately as an army deploys. Well, that is unless your jazz army is under the direction of Earl MacDonald. He commands his troops on Re:Visions to be both flexible and nimble. This buoyant recording is a big band record for those who prefer the dexterity of smaller groups, but dig the beefy energy of multiple players.
MacDonald is the director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut, a former apprentice to pianist Kenny Barron and musical director for Maynard Ferguson. His gift for arranging is to avoid the big band clichés and boilerplate jargon, as he does on "Bad Dream." He re-imagines "You Stepped Out Of A Dream" by collaging various jazz quotes into an entirely new speech with differing time signatures.
MacDonald's arranging plays off a sleight of hand that can only be accomplished with skilled artists. He assembles some heavy hitters to record this disc, including saxophonists Tim Ries and Ralph Bowen, trumpeters Michael Philip Mossman and Joe Magnarelli, guitarist Pete McCann, and bassist Kenny Davis.
Of the ten tracks, six were penned by MacDonald, with one each from Bob Berg, Victor Feldman, and Dizzy Gillespie. Berg's "Friday Night at the Cadillac Club" shuffles a tightly knitted blues that features jazz's version of the poor man's James Bond on guitar, as McCann delivers a searing solo around Jordan Perlson's high energy drumming. That energy is refocused on "Mr. Sunshine," as more of an intricate ensemble sound develops. MacDonald shows his skills as an arranger, sewing multiple horn lines with Magnarelli's trumpet and Jim Brennan's tenor saxophone.
MacDonald takes Feldman's "Joshua," from Miles Davis' classic Seven Steps To Heaven (Columbia, 1963) and keeps his orchestra's ornamentation to a minimum, so as to feature the soloistsBowen, trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman, and himself on piano. If he had heard this version, Davis might have reconvened his Birth of The Cool band. Likewise, Gillespie would be pleased with the saucy salsa version of "Woody 'N You." The orchestra's lithe touch belies its size. It is only when the power is turned up that its size becomes more prevalent.
As a composer, MacDonald is an adroit melody maker. It is easy to imagine his tribute to Art Blakey, "Bu Who," or the waltzing "Jana's Song," played by a by a trio. His "keep it simple" writing style is anything but plain. It's just like his arrangingnatural and flowing.
Track Listing: Friday Night at the Cadillac Club; Mr. Sunshine; Measuring Up; Bad Dream; Joshua; Woody 'N You; Character Defect; Bu Who; Jana's Song.
Personnel: Tim Ries: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Marc Phaneuf: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Ralph Bowen tenor saxophone, flute; Jim Brenan: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Nick Marchione: trumpet; Michael Philip Mossman: trumpet; Pete Rodriguez: trumpet; Joe Magnarelli: trumpet; Bruce Eidem: trombone; Mark Patterson: trombone; Craig Brenan: trombone; Douglas Purviance: bass trombone; Pete McCann: guitar; Kenny Davis: bass; Jordan Perlson: drums; Earl MacDonald: piano, conductor.