John MacLeod & His Rex Hotel Orchestra / Tim Davies Big Band / New England Jazz Ensemble
Be that as it may, the band opens with "Counting to Infinity" (complete with Australian didgeridoo courtesy of guest Anita Thomas), based on Davies' dream in which he is at the world's most beautiful beach but trapped in a deep hole, his escape from which "involves counting every grain of sand in the world." As if that weren't enough, "Hanging by a Thread" (rap by Aloe Blacc) involves teeth falling out, "Dialmentia" Davies' phobia about dial telephones (which, thankfully, are almost as rare these days as the dinosaurs). A full scenario of his recurring dream is provided in the liner notes. In "Pythagatha," Davies thinks he's awake and leans over to cuddle with his wife, only to be bitten by an albino python (not any old python, mind you, but an albino). On the plus side, Davies' nightmares aren't nearly as grim or terrifying musically as might be expected (fortunately, he also has a keen sense of humor that saves the day when all seems darkest).
The rest of the album is thematic in its own way. "Katie's New Handbag" was inspired by Davies' wife's purchase of an expensive Louis Vuitton accessory, "Gubernatorial Recall" (a showcase for Davies' dexterity with brushes) by the political situation in California prior to Arnold Schwarzenegger's interim election, "Blacknail" by the pain and consequences of catching a fingernail in a closing door. "Caravan (-dalized") is a hip hop version of the Juan Tizol classic, "Elegy" a quiet respite from big-band bluster that features cellist Andrew Shulman and bass clarinetist Jennifer Hall brightening Gabriel Faure's classical theme.
What does all this mean for the listener? Well, for one thing, a series of offbeat yet largely engaging charts, anchored in the big band tradition while bending at irregular angles and encompassing myriad quirks of their own, thanks to Davies' inspired and whimsical approach to the music. For another, a highly capable ensemble that believes in the leader's vision and gives his compositions and arrangements the best it has to offer. Third, a number of earnest soloists (including those already named) who shine whenever their names are called. They include altos Martin Kay, Frank Fontaine and Mike Acosta, tenors Mike Nelson and Lee Secard, trumpeters Jon Papenbrook and Sal Cracchiolo, trombonist Jacques Voyemant, guitarist Mark Cally and keyboardist Alan Steinberger. And last but not least, a listening experience that is both liberating and enlightening.
While Dialmentia may be a dream come true for some listeners, it could be more problematic for others, especially those whose conception of big band jazz is bound to an established framework. In other words, this music requires sober engagement and broad-minded acceptance. Once the heart and mind are fully employed, there's much to appreciate and admire.
New England Jazz Ensemble
It's a Grand Night for Swinging
The New England Jazz Ensemble marks its twentieth anniversary with this superb concert recording on which it not only swings with abandon but lends unwavering support to three special guest artists: flutist Ali Ryerson, vocalist Giacomo Gates and guitarist John Abercrombie. The concert opens on a lively note with saxophonist John Mastroianni's brisk, Latin-centered arrangement of Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows" and keeps percolating through the last measures of Billy Taylor's playful "Grand Night for Swinging," splendidly tethered to a Dixie beat by trumpeter Jeff Holmes.
Sandwiched between are four luminous charts by pianist / music director Walt Gwardyak ("My One and Only Love," "Hazel's Hips," "Lady Be Good" coupled with Charlie Parker's "Disappointed," Duke Pearson's "Jeannine"), another tour de force by Mastroianni (Bronislau Kaper's "Invitation") and sparkling arrangements by Holmes of Abercrombie's original compositions "Jazz Folk," "Risky Business" and "Labour Day." Ryerson's supple flute is showcased on "My One and Only Love," and she solos with Gwardyak and drummer John Mele on "The Summer Knows," with trombonist Ben Griffin on "Invitation."