Rick Lawn’s Power of Ten Little Big Band: Earth Tones
Rick Lawn's Power of Ten Little Big Band
The "little" big band format, an ensemble that may range from seven to 11 instrumentalists, gives the leader/arranger/composerin this case the multi-faceted reed player Rick Lawna chance to finely craft the music and bring in players who are equally at home with small groups and big bands and have the ability to work with complex arrangements incorporating solos, simultaneous improvisation and ensemble work. In Philadelphia, organizations like Norman David's Eleventet (At This Time, CoolCraft 2011) are exploiting this compact type of band to deliver their creative wares, echoing such groups that coalesced during the transition from the big band era to the smaller groups of the bebop and cool jazz periods. Trumpeter Miles Davis' Birth Of The Cool (recorded 1949-1950; reissued on Blue Note, 1998) exemplified that tendency.
A related but different development were the cool jazz big bands such as Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, which were more laid back than the swing bands but had the same-sized horn sections. The overall tendency of such ensembles was to bring more artistry and subtlety to the music, and in this sense they all owed a lot to bandleaders and arrangers such as Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. The Maria Schneider Orchestra is a current group that stands in this tradition.
Rick Lawn comes to the album Earth Tones with a wealth of talent developed over a long career doing just about everything in the music business: performing, composing and arranging, and also as an educator and scholar administering jazz programs (most recently as Dean of the College of Performing Arts of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia), organizing jazz events and conferences, and writing. His Experiencing Jazz (McGraw-Hill, 2006) is a well-honed book offering an insightful historical guided tour of America's Classical Music. A prior album, The Unknown Soldier (Sea Breeze Records, 2001), recorded during his tenure at the University of Texas at Austin, swings with the full big band sound. For four decades, he has performed with a jazz quartet, Compass, at diverse venues in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
For Earth Tones, Lawn brought together some of the finest musicians in the Philadelphia area to realize ten well-crafted original compositions which thrive in the little big band format. Most of the tracks consist of tightly harmonized ensemble work in the post-bop mode, with scattered opportunities for solos. The melodies have hints of familiar songs, such as the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends," so that they come across as standards, even though they are not. By contrast, "Ease It" is in classic bebop mode, featuring George Rabbai on trumpet in the same mode as his classic, Muted Bebop (Dreambox Media, 2006). The concluding title track, "Earth Tones" incorporates eerie sounds from inside the chamber of the grand piano and gives a feeling of a fantasy movie. The most striking and pleasurable aspects of Lawn's arrangements are the beautiful sonorities he creates by combining instruments with different colorations, such as vibraphone, flute and soprano saxophone.
The opening track, "Never Too Late" sets the mood for the album with its emphatic back beat, including a recurrent descending chromatic motif that is reminiscent of pianist Don Friedman's compositions on his Waltz for Marilyn (Jazz Excursion Records, 2007). The overall sound is a stone's throw from Maria Schneider's big band arrangements although it often has a brass emphasis. Rhythm section solos by Mike Kennedy on guitar and Kevin MacConnell on bass provide a counterpoint to the ensemble and horn work.
"Sigh of the Soul" is an introspective piece with an Ellingtonian flavor. A subtle intro by vibes and bass is taken up by the reeds and brass, which leads up to saxophone solos by Chris Farr and Ron Kerber, along with a piano solo by Tom Lawton. There are some sweet sonorities combining instruments, and the ever so gentle vibes solo by Tony Miceli could be a testament to Milt Jackson. The ending consists of a touch of Paris Blues that reveals the underlying blues structure of the piece.
"Hopscotch" is a fast-paced tune with a twist of early Miles Davis. A call and response segment features some outstanding soloing by Mark Allen on baritone sax. Lawton plays with octaves and some upper register backdrops, followed by some clever saxophone interplay. Then Allen is back with a little pepper (reference to baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams intended) to spice up the ending.
"Quiet Please!" consists of some ambling waltz time reflections featuring Kerber on soprano sax. In "Tapestry," Lawton's piano stretches into modern dissonant harmonies, practically the only time this occurs in the set. Double time improvisations follow, with a folksy theme reminiscent of one of those Ennio Morricone western scores. There are some fine saxophone exchanges between Farr and Kerber here.
"Ease It" contrasts with the other tracks. It is a strictly bebop number that could have been written by Charlie Parker. Rabbai grabs the listener's attention when he breaks out into one of his fabulous muted trumpet solos. Rabbai is a trumpeter for the ages, and Lawn puts some Count Basie-type riffs behind him, and then trombonist Randy Kapralick solos Basie-band style.
"With a Little Help" begins with a paraphrase of the first four bars of the Beatles' melody, but then goes its own way. The relaxed feel of a country afternoon ensues with comping by Lawton for the saxophone solo. This is followed by a reflective guitar solo by Mike Kennedy with a fine-tuned brass and sax choir background. This homage to the Beatles comes to a solid conclusion with a repeat of the initial phrase and a countermelody with a feeling of a gospel spiritual.
"Retrospect" might be a veiled reference to Lawton's Retrospective Debut (Dreambox Media, 2004) and definitely refers back to earlier tracks in the set. The descending melody is suggestive of a lament, and there is once again a beautiful variance of sonorities. A brief piano solo by Lawton has a taste of Herbie Hancock. The saxophone solo by Chris Farr segues into a double time and back to the main tempo.
"No Regrets" conveys a swing era ballad feeling. An unmuted horn solo by Rabbai evokes shades of Harry James and evolves into a bossa nova rhythm.
With the final track, "Earth Tones," the sonics shift radically. We are taken to a primitive, earthy landscape with foreboding innuendos of storm clouds, a cavern and perhaps a giant animal. The orchestrations are cinematic, including ominous lower register sounds and a howl. The brass and reeds create a martial atmosphere. Then, the electric bass, vibes and shekere announce the arrival of hope. The triumphant royal contingent comes with a dance-like sequence leading up to upbeat solos by Miceli and Kapralick. The piece finalizes in a fugue-ish development and a big band rhythm and blues kick.
Lawn has put together a set of tunes and arrangements in the mainstream post-bop idiom that are consistently listenable with a touch of humor. He makes ample use of the outstanding group of musicians he has assembled for this recording. Anyone familiar with Philly jazz knows that these are among the players who are making it happen in the tri-state area. And the felicitous addition of trumpet master George Rabbai makes this an album to be savored and remembered.
Tracks: Never Too Late; Sigh Of The Soul; Hopscotch; Quiet Please; Tapestry; Ease It; With A Little Help; Retrospect; No Regrets; Earth Tones.
Personnel: Ron Kerber: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Chris Farr: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Rick Lawn: baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Mark Allen: baritone saxophone (3, 10); Matt Gallagher: trumpet, flugelhorn; George Rabbai: trumpet, flugelhorn; Randy Kapralick: trombone; Tony Miceli: vibes; Mike Kennedy: guitar; Tom Lawton: piano; Kevin McConnell: acoustic bass, electric bass; Erik Johnson: drums; Vic Stevens: shekere (10).