Red Bank Jazz Orchestra: Strike Up The Band!
Strike Up The Band!
Hip City Jazz
With the sheer multitude of ghost bands and regional jazz orchestras currently active in America, many of which hold fast to the grave of sophisticated pre-war swing, the supply of tributes to the music's great composers is never in jeopardy. However, with volume comes vapidness, and most offerings to this province, with their prosaic interpretations and lack of emotional fluency, are found wanting. They aspire to such sweet thunder but give to the memory of Duke Ellington and Count Basie nothing but a whisper of sweet flattery.
The Red Bank Jazz Orchestra's jaunty debut, Strike Up The Band!, is no such contribution. With its clear articulation of rich and accessible melodies, intriguing ensemble interplay and colorful guest vocalists (Champian Fulton, Tony DeSare, and Joe Piscopo), Strike Up The Band! exhibits all the pronounced gloss of a Jay Gatsby party yet, unlike Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age icon, the 17 piece band's wealth of style, precision and Rat Pack charisma is predicated upon veritable talent.
Under the helm of conductor Joe Muccioli, best known for his reconstructions of Miles Davis' collaborations with Gil Evans, the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra features some of Greater New York's preeminent working musicians, most notably trumpeter Bob Milikan, trombonist Wayne Goodman and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Williams, a fierce stylist and sound storyteller on both the alto and soprano saxophone and veteran of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.
Strike Up The Band! is largely composed of the usual medley of dramatic big band standards, sticking close to both their riff-based structure and narrative, but distinguishes itself from more conservative tributes in its daring, extroverted solo work, cinematic fluidity and refined presentation.
On Ellington's "The Mooche," the ensemble's New Orleans camaraderie is infectious and balanced: Goodman and Milikan perform visceral plunger solos full of groans, shouts and moans, offsetting the spare lyricism of Dan Block's clarinet, and the reed section's famous Gothic motif punctuates their efforts with its slinking, eerie whine. Equally impressive is pianist Steve Ashe on "The Kid from Red Bank," the Neal Hefti-arranged showcase for Basie's rarely emphasized virtuosity. Ashe, whose touch is tempered and noticeably lighter than Basie's already delicate tone, shines with his trills, subtle chords and dashing poetics, supervising the foreplay before finally submitting to the ascendant, pressure-cooker statement from the explosive horns behind him, delivered like a final oath bellowed by an exultant James Cagney.
Fulton, a superlative vocalist and pianist, astounds on a boisterous version of Turner Layton's tune "After You've Gone." Flowing effortlessly over the song's whirlwind harmonic shifts, Fulton scats in a smooth, peppery style and pivots without interruption into lofty notes sustained like ardent pleas. Her voice is knowing and playful, yet radiates with the wisdom of a strong woman flaunting a secret. The song requires a degree of vulnerability and toughness Fulton has in spades. I'm sad, she says, but one day you'll be worse, and coming from Fulton we can believe it like gospel.
On Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You," DeSare gives a controlled performance attempted, but not heard, since Harry Connick, Jr.'s last record. His smoky, optimistic vocals manage to lend even the most honeyed of Loesser's declarations a degree of respectability, color and nuance, leaving little wonder as to why he is widely considered one of America's most promising male entertainers.
Conversely, Piscopo's jarring rendition of "Come Fly with Me" is a case of returning to the well once too often. Sinatra impersonations in jazz are like Christopher Walken impersonations in Hollywoodeveryone's got one. Despite being one of the world's foremost Sinatra mimics, Piscopo's performance, though fun and cleverly arranged, is too rife with obvious pretense to be taken seriously. The sophisticated hipster cool for which it aims and misses is nothing here but a tarnished facade and ultimately disrupts the flow of an otherwise seamless CD.
The remaining tracks of note are a testament to the orchestra's reliance on and appreciation of the blues, its role in popular songs, and the rewarding task of balancing them with symphonic wit, group cohesion and technical dexterity.
"Moanin'" features pitch perfect dialogue, while Williams goes to church with some of the most expressive melodic variations found on the entire disc; the incessant chatter, breaks, fills and funk-laden riffs on the Thad Jones composition "Us " laughs in the face of any tired charges of traditionalism potentially leveled against the orchestra; and most poignant of all is an instrumental version of Ruth Lowe's ballad "I'll Never Smile Again," in which the playing is truly elegant, reaffirming that big bands need not always be thunderous to be sweet.
It's true that swinging big bands are no longer the salve to tough economic times they once were, for society changed its ways and big bands only preserved them, but recordings like Strike Up The Band! certainly make a strong case for their reinstatement not necessarily in the critical canon next to our most progressive artists, but in those all-too-frequent moments in our lives when we need to be carried away by waves of sound, to which we have only the bandstand to turn.
Tracks: Strike Up the Band; Such Sweet Thunder; The Mooche; After You've Gone; Moanin'; Baby Won't You Please Come Home; Smile; I Believe in You; The Kid From Red Bank; Us; I'll Never Smile Again; Come Fly With Me; One O'clock Jump.
Personnel: Joe Muccioli: conductor; Andy Farber: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Bruce Williams: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute; Dan Block: tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Marc Phaneuf: tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Kurt Bachur: baritone saxophone, flute, English horn, clarinet; Bob Milikan: trumpet; Brian Pareschi: trumpet; Shawn Edmonds: trumpet; Irv Grossman: trumpet; Dave Trigg: trumpet (1, 2,12); Joe Scanella: trumpet (1, 2, 12); Wayne Goodman: trombone; Dion Tucker: trombone; Bruce Eidem: trumpone; Jack Schatz: trombone; Steve Ashe: piano; James Chirillo: guitar; Tony Miceli: vibraphone; Bill Moring: bass; Steve Johns: drums; Mike Nigro: drums.