George Stone / Fred Hess Big Band / Jamie Begian Big Band
If Hess didn't round up every world-class sideman in Colorado to equip his band he must have come close, starting with his working quartet (Ron Miles, trumpet; Ken Filiano, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) and including such heavy hitters as trumpeters Brad Goode and Alan Hood, trombonists The Atomic Fireballs and Nelson Hinds, saxophonists John Gunther and Peter Sommer, and pianist Marc Sabatella. Tenor Sommer is the only newcomer, replacing Dominic Lalli from Hold On. He solos with Hood on "Ninth House." Ball, Hinds, Gunther, Sabatella, Miles, Filiano and Wilson all have their moments in the sun, while the versatile Goode, who plays both lead and jazz, is front and center with Hinds on the rockin' "Home Base" and Filiano on "Alison's Dream." When soloists (including Hess) aren't doing their thing, the ensemble is rock-solid, as is its resourceful rhythm section.
Once again, Hess has accomplished what he set out to do: honor the legacy of big band jazz while moving it forward into a more contemporary framework. If albums such as this signal the future of big band jazz, that future seems bright indeed.
Jamie Begian Big Band
Big Fat Grin
In his brief liner notes to Big Fat Grin, the second album by his New York-based band, composer / arranger Jamie Begian writes that what is presented therein is "serious yet fun art music with a sense of humor." Serious it is; art music, evidently. As for the humor, that's clearly a matter of opinion, as humor in music rests explicitly in the eye (make that ear) of the beholder. What matters, from a reviewer's perspective, is whether the music is admirable on its own terms. The answer, for the most part, is yes, although there are times when it tends to overstay its welcome (three of the album's nine tracks are more than eight minutes long, two more than ten).
Most of it, Begian says, was written in 2003-04 (the exceptions are "Suddenly, Summer Falls" and "Funky Coffee") when his "compositional voice was solidified." That includes the four-part suite "Tayloration," which encompasses nearly twenty-five minutes of the album's hour-plus playing time. Rounding out the disc are "Halay," which sounds much like an Israeli (or Middle Eastern) folk song, the shadowy "Patience" (featuring trumpeter Dave Scott) and "Big Fat Grin," which encloses the package in bright-colored finery enhanced by guitarists Begian and Bruce Arnold.
"Funky Coffee," as its name suggests, is basically down-to-earth and straight ahead, with spunky solos by (and sharp interplay among) alto saxophonist Marc McDonald, trumpeter Tom Goehring and trombonist Deborah Weisz. The leisurely "Summer Falls," on which Begian, flutist Dimitri Moderbacher and flugel Jason Colby share blowing space, has a splendid intro underscored by Ben Kono's oboe and a peaceful ambiance that leads to the more spirited temper of "Tayloration One," each of whose four sections provides room for a trombone solo: in order, Jeff Silverbush, Paul Olenick, Weisz and bass trombonist Max Siegel, the last two of whom use mutes to exemplify their purpose. Soloists on "Halay" are clarinetist Moderbacher and drummer Peter Retzlaff, while Kono (tenor sax) and bassist Dave Ambrosio are out front with Begian and Arnold on "Big Fat Grin."
As on his first album, Trance, recorded a decade ago in 2001, every number on Big Fat Grin was written and arranged by Begian, and as on Trance, Begian shows he belongs in the upper echelon of younger-generation big band leaders, composers and arrangers. While his music isn't always easy to digest, once swallowed it has a generally pleasing taste which bolsters the opinion that more of the same would be in no way disagreeable.
University of Memphis Southern Comfort Jazz Orchestra
Out of the Bluffs
Southern Comfort is a splendid name for the University of Memphis Jazz Orchestra, as the music on its new album, Out of the Bluffs, elicits a feeling of the unassuming warmth and hospitality that are an integral part of southern life and culture. Even the better-known numbers (Thad Jones' "Low Down," Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism," the standard "A Beautiful Friendship") flow as smoothly as a soft rain carrying its invigorating sustenance to fields and meadows parched by the summer sun. In other words, music that's easy on the ears while focused on the heart.