Bob Lark Alumni Band / Bob Curnow / JazzMN Big Band
Bob Lark and His Alumni Big Band
As director for more than two decades of DePaul University's superb Jazz Ensemble, trumpeter Bob Lark has seen an endless parade of outstanding musicians pass through the ranks, which makes the first-ever Reunion of his Alumni Big Band a more than special occasion. Simply convening these eminent graduates in a recording studio for two red-letter days must have been a Herculean task, as many have gone on to fame (if not fortune) as working jazz musicians and / or educators in various parts of the country and beyond, several as leaders of their own groups or sidemen in others.
Once that hurdle had been surmounted and everyone was present and accounted for, Lark assigned them a series of meaty charts to digest, and the result, as anyone can hear, is an animated and colorful session that overflows with eagerness and intensity from start to finish. Lark wrote everything, placing arranging chores in the capable hands of Dominic Marino, Mike Pinto, Thomas Matta, Kirk Garrison, Joseph Clark, Scott Dickinson, Andrew Thompson and Ryan Adamsons. Lark composed and arranged the dynamic opener, "Reunion," an explicit bow to such renowned chart-masters as Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Slide Hampton, Count Basie and others. Following a Basie-style intro by pianist Mike Stryker, the trumpets take charge, with robust solos by Vance Thompson, Garrison, Dan Jones and Marques Carroll preceding Lark's Clark Terry-inspired flugel statement and the obligatory shout chorus by the ensemble.
The next two numbers, "Mad Dan's" and "Until You," both arranged by Marino, are among the more appetizing ingredients in a bumper crop: the first a rhythmic Latin theme encompassing ardent solos by Lark, baritone Ted Hogarth and alto Jon Irabagon (winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk competition), the second an engaging medium-tempo swinger with bright solos by Lark, Irabagon and pianist Ryan Cohan. That's not to undervalue any of the songs that follow, each one of which is persuasive in its own right, starting with another Latin-based charmer, "Roatan," neatly arranged by guitarist Pinto, and continuing with Matta's astute arrangements of "First Steps" (which calls to mind Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments") and the seductive ballad "Cathy's Song," which was written for Lark's wife and debuted on his small-group album of that name. Pinto and Lark solo on "Roatan," Lark, Cohan, bassist Joe Policastro, tenor Glenn Kostur and trombonist Tim Coffman on "First Steps," Lark again on "Cathy's Song." Garrison scored the easygoing bossa "Abruzzi," Clark the multi-layered "Suggestions," Dickinson the colorful "Ravenswood," Thompson the graceful "Winter's Touch," Adamsons the bracing closer, "Tango Caliente." Besides those already named, soloists who ensnare the ear include vibraphonist Justin Thomas and tenor Chris Madsen ("Abruzzi"), tenor Scott Burns and drummer Dana Hall ("Suggestions"), alto Dan Nicholson ("Ravenswood") and trombonist Craig Sunken ("Tango Caliente").
With so many admirable Jazz Studies programs enriching the contemporary landscape, the idea of bringing together alumni bands, as DePaul has, to document their proficiency is one that should perhaps be more widely considered, even in the face of economic and logistical roadblocks. On the other hand, such desires may spring from a selfish point of view, as albums such as this one don't come along every day, and it's a pleasure to hear an alumni band that is so sharp and talented. This is a Reunion that any champion of big-band jazz should welcome and appreciate.
The Bob Curnow Big Band
The Music of Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays, Volume 2
The Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays Group has earned eleven Grammy Awards for its various albums. At the risk of sounding partisan, it's time arranger / impresario Bob Curnow received due credit for superbly reframing their music in a big-band format, which he has done not once but twice. One explicit contrast between this latest enterprise and Volume 1, recorded seventeen years earlier, is that Curnow didn't have to travel from his home in eastern Washington state to Los Angeles to enlist musicians who were able to assimilate and unravel his elaborate charts, using instead the members of his twenty-one year old Bob Curnow Big Band. If there is any variation in quality between the recordings it isn't readily apparent, as Curnow's ensemble performs with world-class proficiency on every number.