Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band / Gerald Wilson Orchestra / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
This is Wilson's "east coast" orchestra, one personified by a star in every chair. As prospective listeners would anticipate, solos are consistently astute and rewarding. Regrettably, the soloists aren't named, but they surely must include alto Antonio Hart, tenor Ron Blake, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, flutist Dick Oatts and baritone Gary Smulyan (sorry if anyone has been left out) along with Anthony Wilson and pianist Renee Rosnes. She's part of a blue-chip rhythm section whose other members are bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash.
When it comes to writing and arranging provocative big band music, Gerald Wilson never fails to deliver the goods. Even though he hasn't yet fully secured his Legacy, this admirable volume will serve as a suitable testament for now.
Terry Vosbein / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
Max Frank Music
Arranger Terry Vosbein has a knack for taking themes that may at first glance seem unsuitable for a big band, especially in a jazz context, and making them work quite well within that framework. On Fleet Street, Vosbein addresses music composed by Stephen Sondheim for the blood-soaked Broadway musical Sweeney Todd and, ably abetted by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, transforms it into a tasteful medley that gladdens the ear and enlivens the spirit in the best tradition of contemporary orchestration.
Although it is presumptuous to draw any firm conclusions, this is one possible direction in which big-band trend-setter Stan Kenton might have gone had he remained alive to carry the torch into the twenty-first century. Clearly, there are echoes of the Kenton style and sound in Vosbein's strong and voluptuous charts, which accentuate the ensemble while making room for perceptive solo statements by its various members. Throughout, Vosbein remains true to Sondheim's vision, never downplaying the composer's precocity or melodicism in favor of his own scenario. Having said that, the voice that emerges is unmistakably Vosbein's, placing a fresh and indelible big-band stamp on Sondheim's cogent narrative.
Even though a handful of his songs ("Maria," "Send in the Clowns," "I Feel Pretty," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Tonight") have enjoyed a measure of popular success, Sondheim writes for the theatre, not for a wider audience, and so most of the songs here may be unfamiliar. Nevertheless, they are consistently charming, and at least one"Not While I'm Around"encompasses a melody that beguiles the mind long after it has been heard. The others are simply Sondheim, and for most champions of superior music no more need be said, save that Vosbein not only amplifies their most desirable qualities but also makes sure they swing.
As for the KJO, it's about as proficient a regional ensemble as could be hoped for, diving earnestly into Vosbein's multi-layered charts and bestowing on each one a special warmth and vitality. Brass and reeds are snug and resourceful, the rhythm section (anchored by drummer Keith Brown) alert and flexible. Soloists too are a cut above the norm. Trombonist Tom Lundberg is showcased on the opener, "The Barber and His Wife," trumpeters Rich Willey and Stewart Cox on "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and "By the Sea," respectively. Others who elevate the discourse include Brown, trumpeter Michael Wyatt, altos David King and Doug Rinaldo, tenors Alan Wyatt and Will Boyd, trombonist Don Hough, pianist Ben Dockery and percussionist David Knight.
In his earlier album with the KJO, Progressive Jazz 2009, Vosbein confronted music by Bob Graettinger, Pete Rugolo, Claude Debussy and even one song repeated here (Sondheim's "Johanna"). He showed his prowess on that occasion, and has done so again. This is Sondheim neatly redesigned and tailor-made for big-band enthusiasts.
Howard University Jazz Ensemble