H2 Big Band / Tempest Little Big Band / Deutsch Oper Berlin Big Band
The H2 Big Band
Big-band album of the year? There have been a number of worthy aspirants in the first half of 2011, and now comes another strong contender: the Denver-based H2 Big Band, whose debut recording, You're It!, is a paragon of straight-ahead blowing pleasure from start to finish. The "H2" refers not to an ensemble in search of a stray molecule to produce water but to the surnames of its co-leaders, trumpeter Al Hood and pianist Dave Hanson, who have not only assembled a group of world-class musicians from Colorado but have gone well beyond its borders to recruit four others whose expertise is crucial to the album's unequivocal success.
Chief among the enlistees is Albuquerque's Bobby Shew, a renowned trumpeter who remains at age seventy a consummate master of his horn. In small print, the album's cover announces that the band is performing "with special guest Bobby Shew." Ordinarily, that means a couple of solos and it's bye bye, H2. Surprise! Not only does Shew solo on three tracks, he's in the trumpet section on every number and plays impeccable lead on five. Another Albuquerquean, baritone saxophonist Glenn Kostur (who cut his big-band teeth with Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau), anchors the reed section and adds an assertive solo on the groovy opener, "Blue Brews" (whose seductive motif calls to mind the sort of theme that Henry Mancini might have written for a private eye TV series). Mike Rodriguez, one of Hood's former students, flew in from New York City, Jason Carder from Miami to round out the trumpet section.
Even so, the spark that makes this powerful engine run is Hanson who wrote seven of the album's eleven engaging numbers and arranged the whole package. As for Hood, he's showcased on Hanson's lyrical "Romanza," plays a nimble game of "trumpet tag" with Shew on "You're It!," solos with trombonist Al Hermann on another snappy Hanson original, "Al's Well," with trombonist Nelson Hinds on Cy Coleman / Dorothy Fields' "Big Spender," and alongside the entire trumpet section on the free-swinging finale, Clifford Brown's exuberant "Joy Spring." Rodriguez has the spotlight to himself on Hanson's "For Claus" (Ogerman, one of Hanson's arranging role models) and solos with Kostur and trombonist Tom Ball on "Blue Brews." Alto Rich Chiaraluce is the spokesman on Hanson's easygoing arrangement of "Singin' in the Rain," Shew and tenor Bob Rebholz on the Basie-like burner "BMG," Hanson, Carder (flugel) and alto Wil Swindler on the prosodic "Double Doubles." Trumpeter Brad Goode frames a dazzling muted solo on Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" (yet another splendid Hanson chart) while tenor Peter Sommer keeps pace stride for stride. All the trumpeters bring their "A" game to "Joy Spring," which includes a mazelike soli version of Brownie's original solo. The trumpets are given ample room to stretch, as "Spring" runs for more than thirteen minutes, most of which is unbridled blowing time.
For reasons unknown, a number of blue-chip big bands have come out of Colorado in the last few years, and H2 is the latest in that impressive line. You're It! covers all the plausible bases, and does so with proficiency and panache. As a bonus, the album's playing time is a quite generous 76:50.
Tempest Little Big Band
Baritone saxophonist James Rozzi's Georgia-based Tempest Little Big Band is well-named, for two reasons: first, it is relatively "Little"actually a nonet, its sections evenly divided among brass, reeds and rhythm; and second, these gentlemen don't let size hinder them from blowing up a storm and sounding at times like a full-fledged "Big Big Band."
"'Round Midnight" is the LBB's first studio recording, and even though seven of the ten selections could be described as shopworn, radiant new charts make them well worth hearing again, and the ensemble digs into each one with deftness and enthusiasm. There are no audible lapses, all the more surprising since, as Rozzi notes, nothing on the album "was played more than a handful of times prior to the session," and three of the arrangements "were brand new to us." Even more striking are the solos by Rozzi, trumpeters Joe Gransden and Lester Walker, alto Sam Skelton, tenor Bryan Lopes, tombonist Wes Funderburke, bassist Craig Shaw and pianist George Haydon, all of which are inventive and resourceful. Gransden sometimes calls to mind Bobby Shew, and there aren't many comparisons more adulatory than that. Rozzi's bari is dark and thunderous on "'Round Midnight," Walker's trumpet bright and supple on Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and Freddie Hubbard's "Thermo," one of three lesser-known entrees on the menu (the others are Tom Kubis' blues, "Captain Cheerio," and the late Gerry Niewood's Latin charmer, "Hold Me").
Completing the program are Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" (arranged by Pete McGuinness), Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" (arranged by Kubis), Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" (arranged by Rozzi), Pablo Beltran's "Sway" (arranged by Funderburke) and the standard "I'll Remember April" (arranged by Chris Byers). There are three vocals, two by Gransden ("April," "Sway"), the other by Audrey Shakir ("Satin Doll"). Gransden is earnest and animated, Shakir cool and unflappable. The rhythm section is exemplary, as is lead trumpet Ryan Chapman. In sum, a solidly impressive album by a muscular band that is "little" in name only.
Deutsche Oper Berlin Big Band
How Long Is Now?
Before pressing on, the award for cleverest "new" song of the last few years goes to the Deutsch Oper Berlin Big Band's music director, Rolf von Nordenskjold, for "How Long Is Now?," whose engaging lyrics are comprised entirely of phrases "borrowed" from the Great American Songbook and smartly sung by Pascal von Wroblewsky. That's only one of several high spots on this animated concert performance at the Kopenicker Jazz & Blues Festival, presumably the second recording by the DOB ensemble (the first, Premiere, was recorded two years earlier, in 2008).
Besides "How Long" and two more compositions by von Nordenskjold, the band surveys music by Don Menza, Rob McConnell, Toots Thielemans and Guillermo Klein, the standards "Willow Weep for Me" and "The End of a Love Affair" (both sung by Wroblewsky), and even performs a song by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "Komm lieber Mai," neatly updated by Rob Pronk. The ensemble is equal to every task, playing with warmth and readiness, while the various soloists are unerringly impressive. They include alto saxophonist Oliver Link (featured on von Nordenskjold's "Pink Lips"), tenors Peter Ludewig and Rainer Gabler, trumpeter Achim Rothe, trombonist Simon Harrer (especially persuasive on McConnell's "Can't Stop My Leg"), guitarist Manfred Dierkes, pianist Matthias Hessel, bassist Christoph Niemann and drummer Rudiger Ruppert.
Ludewig and Dierkes are center stage on the impulsive opener, Menza's "Time Check," Ruppert, Ludewig and Hessel on von Nordenskjold's powerful "Einspielzeit," Rothe, Ruppert and percussionist Andreas Birnbaum on Klein's shadowy "El Minotauro." Niemann's resonant bass introduces "Can't Stop My Leg" before giving way to Harrer and Dierkes. Niemann and Wroblewsky launch the finale, Thielemans' lively "Bluesette," and Wroblewsky and von Nordenskjold trade scat choruses after a blistering solo by Link. Recorded sound is satisfactory albeit a tad muffled at times, perhaps owing to the concert venue. Wroblewsky, who obviously has talent, isn't always on the mark but her over-all performance is more than respectable (even though four vocals stretch the tolerable limit for any big-band album). Germany, which supports the performing arts on a scale far beyond what is customary here in the States, has produced a number of world-class big-bands as a result; this is one of them.
An Evening with Dave Grusin
Heads Up International
Dave Grusin can play a mean jazz piano but seldom does so, owing to his busy life as a composer / arranger for Hollywood films (The Graduate, On Golden Pond, Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, The Champ, Milagro Beanfield War, The Firm, The Fabulous Baker Boys and others) and television series (It Takes a Thief, The Bold Ones, Baretta, St. Elsewherethe list goes on). Those gifts are on display for all to see and hear in An Evening with Dave Grusin, a concert performance from December 2009 in Miami in which Grusin's music (and that of Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini, the Gershwin brothers and Gus Kahn / Walter Donaldson) is performed by the 75-member Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and guest artists Patti Austin, Gary Burton, Jon Secada, Arturo Sandoval, Nestor Torres, Sammy Figueroa and Monica Mancini. The jacket / notes don't say so, but my guess is that besides conducting, that's probably Grusin playing the tasteful piano behind Austin, Secada, Mancini and on most other numbers (no pianist is listed with the orchestra). He's especially impressive on the high-stepping finale, "Memphis Stomp," on which his unaccompanied piano is showcased all the way (unless, of course, that's Shelly Berg's piano, as he is introduced with other guests at the end of the concert but is not listed among the soloists).
Even though it's his evening, Grusin knew better than to go it alone. The concert at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center was co-produced by Grusin's partners at GRP Records, Larry Rosen and Phil Ramone, and Ramone supervised the recording itself (which, by the way, is about as clean and well-balanced as concerts can be). With those heavy hitters in his corner, it remained only for Grusin to help choose the music, then show up in a tux with baton in hand (and piano nearby) to make certain nothing would go awry (it didn't). Among the dozen selections are Grusin's powerful "Fratelli Chase" (from the 1985 cult film The Goonies), his Academy Award-winning suite from The Milagro Beanfield War, and "On Golden Pond / Hornpipe Medley." Vocalist Monica Mancini is enchanting on her father's Oscar-winning "Moon River," while vibraphonist Burton solos smartly on the elder Mancini's powerful theme from the TV series Peter Gunn (and Bernstein's "Cool," from West Side Story), flutist Torres on Bernstein's frothy "I Feel Pretty."
Austin is playfully charming on the Kahn / Donaldson standard "Makin' Whoopee" (sung by Michelle Pfeiffer in The Baker Boys) and duets on "Somewhere" with Secada, who returns later to sing the lovely ballad "Maria." A searing rendition of "America" by Sandoval is included on the Blu-ray and iPad App versions but not on the CD. Although Burton, Torres, Sandoval (and Grusin) are gifted improvisers, and a big band is on hand to support them, the concert leans far more heavily and often toward film and popular music than it does toward jazz. That's neither good nor bad, only something that should be pointed out. This is admirable music, wonderfully played by Grusin, his guests and the Mancini Institute Orchestra.
Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble
Swinging on the Road!
Unlike previous albums, in which the NIU Jazz Ensemble limited the swinging largely to its own campus, director Ronald Carter's stout-hearted band of undergrads affirms here that Swinging on the Road! creates no stumbling blocks and is indeed as natural as wailing at home. At least, that is among the lessons gleaned from this concert tour, undertaken in April 2005 with special guest trombonist Conrad Herwig turning up the heat on three numbers.
The ensemble is earnest and resourceful throughout, the soloists in tiptop form. Alto saxophonist David Hartsman is superb on Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," fellow alto Benny Hill much the same on Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." Herwig joins the group for outspoken solos on John Coltrane's lyrical "Syeeda's Flute Song," his own elaborate composition, "Out of Darkness / Into Light," and an upbeat version of Johnny Green's durable standard, "Body and Soul" (on which tenor Robert Collazo and drummer Iajhi Hampden also shine). Other instrumentals are Claudio Roditi's Latin flag-waver "WE," Tim Davies' groovy "Rubberneck" and Mike Tomaro's funky "Conspiracy Theory." Hartsman, drummer Rodrigo Villanueva and trumpeter Ralph Disylvestro share blowing space on "WE," Disylvestro, pianist Sean Higgins, baritone Nate Heffron and bassist Josh Ramos on "Rubberneck," Collazo, trombonist Garrett Arrowood and drummer Phil Beal on "Theory."
Vocalist Catherine Moody is featured on Cole Porter's "Easy to Love" and Duke Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You." Moody is personable enough, and if she doesn't always land squarely on the proper note (especially on "Easy to Love"), she does at least come close, and earns bonus points for charm. She's ably supported by the ensemble, with a seductive intro by Hartsman on "I Didn't Know About You." Listening to Swinging on the Road!, it's easy to understand why the NIU ensemble, under Carter and his predecessor, Ron Modell, has won so many awards at jazz festivals and from DownBeat magazine (ten Outstanding Performance Awards in the big-band category). May the band keep on swinging for many years to come.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Blue Brews; You're It!; Singing in the Rain; BMG; For Claus; Big Spender; Double Doubles; Blue in Green; Al's Well; Romanza; Joy Spring.
Personnel: Malcolm Lynn Baker: conductor, music director; Al Hood: co-leader, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dave Hanson: co-leader, composer, arranger, piano; Jason Carder: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brad Goode: trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Rodriguez: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bobby Shew: trumpet, flugelhorn; Rich Chiaraluce: alto sax, flute, clarinet; Wil Swindler: alto sax, flute, clarinet; Peter Sommer: tenor sax; Bob Rebholz: tenor sax, flute; Glenn Kostur: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Nelson Hinds: trombone; Allen Hermann: trombone; Tom Ball: trombone; Gary Mayne: bass trombone; Ken Walker: bass; Todd Reid: drums.
Tracks: Captain Cheerio; I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face; Caravan; Hold Me; I'll Remember April; Round Midnight; Shiny Stockings; Satin Doll; Thermo; Sway.
Personnel: James Rozzi: leader, baritone sax; Ryan Chapman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Joe Gransden: trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals (1, 2, 4-8, 10); Lester Walker: trumpet (3, 9); Sam Skelton: alto, soprano sax; Bryan Lopes: tenor sax; Wes Funderburke: trombone; Geoff Haydon: piano; Craig Shaw: bass; Justin Varnes: drums; Audrey Shakir: vocal (8).
How Long Is Now?
Tracks: Time Check; How Long Is Now?; Einspielziet; Willow Weep for Me; Komm lieber Mai; El Minatouro; Pink Lips; Can't Stop My Leg; The End of a Love Affair; Bluesette.
Personnel: Rolf von Nordenskjold: music director; Konrad Schreiter: trumpet; Lars Ranch: trumpet; Martin Wagermann: trumpet; Gerhard Greif: trumpet; Achim Rothe: trumpet; Oliver Link: alto, soprano sax; Dieter Velte: alto sax, bass clarinet; Peter Ludewig: tenor sax, clarinet; Rainer "Macky" Gabler: tenor sax; Karola Elssner: baritone sax; Guntram Halder: trombone; Simon Harrer: trombone; Sebastian "Sese" Krol: trombone; Thomas Richter: bass trombone; Matthias Hessel: piano; Manfred Dierkes: guitar; Christoph Niemann: bass; Rudiger "Rube" Ruppert: drums; Andreas Birnbaum: percussion; Pascal von Wroblewsky: vocals.
An Evening with Dave Grusin
Tracks: Fratelli Chase; On Golden Pond / Hornpipe Medley; IntroPatti Austin; Makin' Whoopee; Porgy & Bess Medley; Cool; Somewhere; Suite from The Milagro Beanfield War; IntroJon Secada; Maria; I Feel Pretty; Moon River; Peter Gunn; Memphis Stomp.
Swinging on the Road!
Tracks: WE; Isfahan; Easy to Love; I Didn't Know About You; Rubberneck; My Funny Valentine; Syeeda's Song Flute; Out of Darkness / Into Light; Body & Soul; Conspiracy Theory.
Personnel: Ronald Carter: director; Ralph Disylvestro: trumpet; Adam Hucke: trumpet; Albert Strong: trumpet; John Moore: trumpet; Max Kiesner: trumpet; David Hartsman, Benny Hill, Robert Collazo, Donnie Norton, Nate Heffron: saxophones; Garrett Arrowood: trombone; Andy Strode: trombone; Brett Marcum: trombone; Mike Schultz: trombone; Sean Higgins: piano; Dave Miller: guitar; Josh Ramos: bass; Iajhi Hampden: drums; Phil Beale: drums; Catherine Moody: vocals. Guest artistsConrad Herwig: trombone (7-9); Rodrigo Villanueva: drums (1).