Bob Lark Alumni Band / Bob Curnow / JazzMN Big Band
The seductive opener, "A Place in the World," is one of half a dozen selections gleaned from the Metheny / Mays Group's Grammy-winning albums, Speaking of Now and Speaking of Now Live. It offers the first of several chances to hear one of the band's most engaging solo voices, that of alto saxophonist Todd DelGiudice, who shares blowing space with trumpeter Andy Plamondon in Curnow's galvanic arrangement. What may appear to be solos on "Follow Me," taken from another Grammy-winning album, Imaginary Day, are actually Curnow's re-orchestration of Metheny's guitar solo, imparted by DelGiudice and trumpeter Vern Sielert. "Follow Me" is followed by the lyrical, multi-colored "Wherever You Go" (also from Speaking of Now) whose glimmering solos are by DelGiudice, Sielert and trombonist Al Gemberling.
The buoyant "James," showcasing pianist Don Goodwin and taken from another Grammy-winning enterprise, Offramp, precedes two more numbers from Speaking of Now and Speaking of Now Live, "The Gathering Sky" and "You." The first is a spacious "big-band epic" in the manner of Stan Kenton, for whose orchestra Curnow wrote in the '70s, the second a warm balladic vehicle for DelGiudice's alto, Sielert's flugelhorn and Rob Tapper's trombone. Tapper, Sielert, DelGiudice (soprano) and drummer Michael Waldrop solo impressively on "Gathering Sky." The funky, upbeat "And Then I Knew" (alto solo by DelGiudice, Metheny-like intro by guitarist Kyle Smith) is from the album We Live Here, the easygoing "Afternoon" and rock-centered "As It Is" once again from Speaking of Now. DelGiudice and Sielert are exemplary on "Afternoon," tenor Gary Edighoffer and drummer Dru Heller likewise on "As It Is."
The penultimate selection, "Chet's Call," is the only song on the album never recorded by the Metheny / Mays Group. A pity, as its genial West Coast vibe is a pleasure to hear from start to finish. Metheny says it was written for a gig in the mid-80s with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Chet Baker "that never happened." Again, DelGiudice is the enchanting soloist, as he is with Sielert on the strapping finale, "The Heat of the Day," from the album Imaginary Day. That's a marvelous way to end one of the finest big-band albums to come along since . . . well, since Volume 1. Whatever your stance toward the music of Metheny and Mays, Curnow affirms beyond any doubt that they have written some lovely and charming melodies, many of which rest quite easily when realigned in a big-band framework. Volume 2 of The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays is easily recommended, as is Volume 1 (MAMA Records, 1994) if it is still accessible.
Enriching Life with Jazz
The JazzMN Big Band represents the great state of Minnesota and its twin cities, Minneapolis / St. Paul, and does so quite well on its second recording to date, the aptly named Enriching Life with Jazz. The album's ten selections (the last one, Oscar Pettiford's "Blues in the Closet," is listed as a bonus track) were taped during half a dozen concerts from 2004 to 2010, which gives rise to the inevitable fluctuations in sound and balance, obstacles the band manages to surmount with relative ease by dint of its unflagging enthusiasm and superb musicianship.
The album's showpiece, running for almost eleven minutes, is the "West Side Story Medley," Johnny Richards' classic arrangement of songs from the Leonard Bernstein / Stephen Sondheim musical, introduced in 1966 by the incomparable Buddy Rich on his album Swingin' New Big Band. The ensemble excels here, as does drummer Joe Pulice who has the unenviable task of sitting in for Buddy. The well-knit solos are by trombonist Michael Nelson and tenor saxophonist Dave Karr. No, this isn't Buddy Rich; on the other hand, it's none too shabby for a regional non-profit repertory band. JazzMN follows that with a tango (Astor Piazzolla's "La Camorra") and funk tune (Marcus Miller's "Splatch"), both nicely arranged by Fred Sturm. Baritone Kathy Jensen and soprano Pete Whitman solo on "La Camorra," bassist Jay Young and guitarist David Singley on "Splatch." The colorful "Blues in the Closet" is an engaging bonus, showcasing the band's virtuosic sax section (Whitman, Fred Bayer, Brian Grivna, alto sax; Karr on tenor, and John Zimmerman on baritone) who perform the entire piece by themselves.