George Stone / Fred Hess Big Band / Jamie Begian Big Band
The Real Deal
Every once in a while the stars align, the wheel of fortune spins precisely and listeners are the happy recipients of a big band album that is remarkably engaging and spectacular from start to finish; in other words, The Real Deal. This is one of those unique and memorable occasions, one in which leader George Stone has not only recruited a squadron of superlative sidemen (and guests) but has given them exemplary music to play, some of it written and all of it arranged by Stone himself.
As for the tenor of the music, Stone's breezy opener, "D-Bop," and robust finale, "Straight Ahead," set the compass securely to "swing" and erase any doubt about his purpose. Sandwiched between are three buoyant originals by Stone, a quartet of familiar standards, Louie Bellson's "Peaceful Thunder" and Sonny Rollins' "Doxy." Guest trombonist Bob McChesney is astute and eloquent on Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," trumpeter Bobby Shew a mirror image on "When Sunny Gets Blue." Two more guests, tenor Donny McCaslin and soprano Chris Vadala, shower sparks before trading well-aimed volleys on "Doxy," and McCaslin is showcased with Stone, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Dave Tull on Cole Porter's "I Love You." Guitarist Steve Gregory, sitting in for Koonse, spars with alto Gene Burkert on Stone's Basie-inspired "Count Me Out."
Stone's electric piano introduces "Doxy," and he moves to trumpet to complement Burkert with a persuasive solo on "Straight Ahead." Tenor Bill Liston adds trenchant statements on "D-Bop," "Peaceful Thunder" and Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" (the last with trumpeter Charley Davis}, while Burkert, Stone and tenor Brian Scanlon shine on Stone's even-tempered salute to Jeru, "Mulligan's Nest." Tull, Stone, Koonse and bassist Trey Henry comprise a perceptive and powerful rhythm section, and it goes without saying that the ensemble, with such luminaries as Davis and Wayne Bergeron leading the trumpets and blue-chip players in every other seat, is razor-sharp and clean as the proverbial whistle (as is the album's lucid and well-balanced sound).
Stone's band, which has remained more or less intact since it was formed better than a decade ago, has recorded at least three earlier albums, each of which has much to recommend it, but with all due respect to them, this latest session is The Real Deal and as such is warmly endorsed.
Fred Hess Big Band
Into The Open
Into The Open, Colorado-based composer / arranger / educator / tenor saxophonist Fred Hess's second album as leader of his own big band, opens strongly with four numbers tucked firmly in a straight-ahead pocket, encounters a brief unmelodious pothole or two on the sometimes spasmodic "Alison's Dream," but quickly recovers its equilibrium on an adventurous "Journey to Sentosa." A second sonic aberration, the offbeat tone poem "Baby Clefs Birthday," precedes the session's 15 minutes-plus finale, "Ninth House," a picturesque albeit sometimes strident homage to the music of John Coltrane.
This is by way of saying that Hess clearly achieves his goal of "looking back and thinking forward," as he did with the album's precursor, Hold On, recorded in January 2009, one year before into the open. While Hess is a modernist, he doesn't conceal his fondness and admiration for the big-band tradition, building on the legacy of such giants as Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan and others on the straight-arrow "Sooz Blooz," "Home Base" and "Norman's Gold." Hess wrote and arranged all of them, as he did everything else on the album save for "See You (Illuma Soma)," which blends a pair of lovely melodies written, respectively, by Jean Bardy and Dennis Goodhew. As noted, every theme is enticing and plain-spoken aside from short-lived sections of "Alison's Dream" and much of "Baby Clefs Birthday," whose singular themes depict an excursion to a park, a "dark cloud of menacing crickets," the abduction of Baby Clef by a robber, his apprehension (complete with "Dragnet" theme) and a discussion of the episode by family and friends at a favorite coffee house. That's a lot to swallow in less than four minutes, and so is the music.