James Morrison / Tall & Small / Millennium Jazz Orchestra
The first question that arises about Snappy Too, the latest mind-blowing enterprise by Aussie James Morrison, is how is it to be filed: under "big band" or "duo"? The fact is, the album is both, as the personnel consists of Jeff Hamilton on drums and Morrison on everything else, from brass to reeds, bass to piano, even guitar, bass trumpet and banjo. That's no misprint. Morrison, the jazz world's consummate do-it-yourself enthusiast (not to mention musical genius), produced a similarly phenomenal album, Snappy Doo, more than twenty years before this one was conceived. He had more help the first time around with Hamilton, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown comprising the rhythm section. As Ellis and Brown have since passed on, Morrison decided they couldn't be replaced, so he simply "brushed up his chops" and added guitar and bass to his ever-growing repertoire. What's next? Harmonica? Accordion? Conch shells? (Watch out, Steve Turre; he may be coming for you!)
Besides performing (brilliantly) throughout, Morrison wrote seven of the eleven numbers on Snappy Too and arranged everything save the standard "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," on which his Tommy Dorsey-inspired trombone enhances Evan Lohning's lustrous chart. Morrison departs twice from the big-band format, on "Sad Blues" (scored for a traditional six-piece Dixieland ensemble) and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (a "duet" for guitar and bass trumpet). For those who believe no one person should embody that much talent, it is our sad duty to report that Morrison writes and arranges about as well as he plays, which is impeccably on every instrument. While he stops short of singing, it's not hard to envision his causing Tony Bennett, Harry Connick Jr. or Michael Buble some sleepless nights. He's that good at everything he does.
Lest there be any inclination to dismiss Snappy Too as no more than a "gimmick," it should be clearly noted that Morrison not only plays every instrument except drums, he plays themwithout exception, singly or in unisonabout as well as anyone on the planet. Not to belabor the point, but the man is beyond any question an unrivaled virtuoso. As to how the album was meticulously put together, Morrison writes: "We started most charts with a 'click' or 'guide' track and I put down the lead trumpet first. The reason . . . is that when you play live with a big band, everyone listens to the lead trumpet (or they should) so I needed that first to 'hang' everything else from. It's the hardest gig I've ever done on lead trumpetplaying with no band and having to play as though you are leading another fifteen musicians who aren't there yet . . .
"After the first trumpet I added the rest of the section, then moved on to saxophones, lead alto first. Then came the 'bones and on to the rhythm section. I went with the bass first, then guitar, piano and finally took the whole thing to Los Angeles to record Jeff on drums. . . . The way the drummer plays, both time and dynamics normally [have] a huge effect on the band. Jeff is used to having this effect as he plays and 'drives' the band. It was a new experience to have to sound like that whilst actually playing along to what was already there. Of course he did a superb job and made it look easy. The very last things to go down were the improvised solos. Some of these I did 'live' when Jeff was putting down the drums, and some were done back at my studios in Sydney." Central to the process, Morrison points out, was recording engineer Tod Deeley, "a musical magician who seems to know instinctively what I need when capturing music."
Speaking of the music, it begins with a bravura version of the standard "All of Me" (seductive Armstrong-like trumpet solo by you-know-who following a clever "trad" intro that sounds like it was lifted from an old 78rpm recording), Morrison's charming "Master Plan" (tenor sax, bass solos) and "Getting Sentimental." Another Morrison original, "The Call," is a mid-tempo blues for his eloquent trumpet, the easygoing "No Regret" a showcase for his equally evocative soprano sax and flugelhorn. The bright, fast-moving "Zog's Jog," yet another highlight, lends Hamilton a brief solo spot along with trumpet and trombone, which re-emerge in a more archival vein on the suitably heavy-hearted "Sad Blues." Morrison excels on baritone sax and trumpet on "Up a Lazy River," on guitar and bass trumpet (sans rhythm) on "My Prince." The album closes as it began, with Morrison in superior form on his impassioned two-part Gospel anthem, "Going Home," wherein he channels trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and pianist Oscar Peterson.
Playing one or two instruments well is remarkable enough; playing almost all of them flawlessly is akin to superhuman. To the best of our knowledge only one other musician, Bill Prince, has recorded an album (Happy Thoughts) on which he plays everything but drums. Prince's album is splendid, Morrison's even more so. When the Grammy electors cast their votes this year they may have to reserve two statues for Morrison, one for Best Large Ensemble, the other for Best Small Group. Either one (or both) would clearly be well-deserved.
Tall & Small
High on You
When tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb and his wife, trombonist Linda Small, decided shortly after their marriage in 2008 to form a big band, finding a suitable name was the least of their concerns, as Christlieb measures somewhere around six feet three or four inches from fore to aft and Small is as elfin as her maiden name, making Tall & Small a natural choice. While it was a bit harder to persuade a number of the Los Angeles area's busiest and most accomplished musicians to come on board they managed that too, which meant that when the eleven-piece ensemble was preparing to record its first album, only the position of arranger remained vacant. As good fortune would have it, Christlieb has been a member for more than two decades of the legendary Bill Holman's rehearsal band, so when the co-leaders approached Holman with a request that he write all the charts for High on You the maestro readily agreed, thus ensuring that Tall & Small's maiden voyage would experience smooth sailing no matter how strong or equivocal the tides.
Besides arranging every number, Holman threw in a couple of his own compositions, the blues-based "Bosco Sez" and fast-moving swinger "Without a Paddle," and they are among the session's series of highlights. The late Bob Brookmeyer penned two others, "Minuet (Circa '61)" and "Open Country." Al Cohn wrote "High on You," Sonny Rollins the boppish "Pent-Up House." Christlieb's tenor is showcased on Billy Strayhorn's ballad "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," Small's trombone on Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues." Holman scored "High on You" as a buoyant samba; the tantalizing solos are by Small, Christlieb, pianist Joe Bagg and trumpeter Bob Summers. Duke Ellington's "Don't You Know I Care," arranged by Holman as a jazz waltz, embodies a rare solo by baritone Gene Cipriano and further assertive blowing by Christlieb.
Small, who has become quite an engaging soloist, as exemplified on Troup's "Blues," is out front again with Christlieb and bassist Putter Smith on "Bosco Sez," after which alto saxophonist Kevin Garren spars eagerly with the hard-to-outshine Christlieb and Summers on "Pent-Up House." Brookmeyer's graceful "Minuet" elicits cogent statements from Small, Christlieb and Bagg, while "Open Country" has an impressive surprise of its ownChristlieb on baritone sax, paying homage to Gerry Mulligan on a number that came from a group co-led by Mulligan and Brookmeyer. Christlieb solos handsomely, as do Small and alto Gary Foster. "Without a Paddle," a stalwart vehicle for Christlieb, Bagg and trumpeter Ron Stout, is an excellent way to bring the picturesque journey to an end.
Even though Tall & Small is an eleven-piece group (two trumpets, five saxophones, trombone and rhythm), it sounds and plays much bigger, thanks in large measure to Holman's resourceful charts. Even if it didn't, there's an all-star in every chair, helping to make High on You one of the year's most tasteful and exciting big-band albums.
Millennium Jazz Orchestra
Distrust All Rules
Don't let the album's name mislead you: Henri Gerrits, the composer / arranger on Distrust All Rules, a superlative recording by the Netherlands' world-class Millennium Jazz Orchestra, may disregard some precepts, but he follows enough of them to ensure that the voyage from Tracks 1-8 is not only pleasant but invariably melodic and normal in the best sense of the words. Gerrits, who also plays trombone in the ensemble, wrote six of the eight numbers and arranged all of them, and there isn't a lemon in the lot.
The fast-paced opener, from which the album derives its name, is a well-knit groover with solos to match by baritone Job Helmers, trombonist Vincent Veneman and drummer Klaas van Donkersgoed. "Threepression," which ensues, is, Gerrits writes, "a combination of two [ideas]: three-quarter time and depression." The somber introduction leads to a randomly discordant climax, which is as far "out" as Gerrits ever strays. Gerrits wrote the freewheeling "Easy Job" as a showcase for Helmers' baritone, and arranged Ray Noble's engaging ballad "The Very Thought of You" to feature the excellent pianist Dirk Balthaus. Balthaus composed the saucy "B-Tango," on which he solos with soprano saxophonist Volker Winck. The dynamic "Eleven-Seven" marks the date of Gerrits' marriage, while "Starlight" is based on the well-known standard "Stella by Starlight." Winck (tenor) solos with trumpeter Jan-Willem te Kiefte on "Eleven-Seven," with van Donkersgoed on "Stella." He's splendid throughout, as are his colleagues. Gerrits and the orchestra wrap things up with the brassy and clever "Factory Reset" whose exuberant solos are by trombonist Veneman and alto Gerlo Hesselink.
Although none of the eight numbers runs for more than ten minutes, the first half-dozen come close. "The Very Thought of You" clocks in at 6:17, "Factory Reset" at 6:53, producing an over-all playing time bordering on sixty-eight minutes, almost none of which is unrewarding thanks to Gerrits' seductive charts and a letter-perfect performance by the MJO under conductor Joan Reinders. There is nothing to "distrust" here aside from an ambiguous title that may dissuade anyone from assuming that Distrust All Rules embodies anything other than straightforward, swinging big-band jazz of the highest caliber.
Aschaffenburger Big Band
A new recording (the second) by Germany's Aschaffenburger Big Band may not seem especially enticing to the average listener until three pivotal words are added: "Featuring Ernie Watts." Watts, one of the West Coast's premier saxophonists for more than four decades who burst on the scene in the mid-60s as a member of the superlative Buddy Rich Big Band and later played with Oliver Nelson and Charlie Haden's Grammy Award-winning Quartet West, is a first-call studio musician who logged twenty years with The Tonight Show band led by Doc Severinsen and has produced almost as many albums as leader of his own groups. That's what is known as an impressive resumé.
On Second Take, which was recorded in 2002, Watts, playing only tenor sax, shows his consummate virtuosity on four numbers including his own "Joyous Reunion," adeptly arranged by Mike Crotty. The others are Bird's "Au Privave," Peter Linhart's "My Noise" and an unaccompanied two-minute finale, "Second Take," which fades gently into the sunset with Watts still wailing. Linhart, the ensemble's leader, adds another strong tenor voice on Glenn Miller's venerable "Moonlight Serenade" (agreeably updated by Bob Mintzer). There are several other engaging solos along the way, most notably by pianist Harald Kern, flugel Christoph Lewandowski ("The Song Is You"), guitarist Jan Sturmer ("Au Privave,' Linhart's funky "Hip-Hop-Otamus"), Lewandowski and soprano Markus Lihocky (Maria Schneider's "Last Season") and alto Andreas Wojtanowitsch (the TV-themed parody "Agent 002"). Drummer Jan Wilk (who wrote and arranged "Agent 002"), pianist Kern, guitarist Sturmer, bassist Robert Oursin and percussionist Piesba Supertino comprise a sturdy and supportive rhythm section. Rounding out the tasteful program is drummer Dave Weckl's sunny"Festival de Ritmo," splendidly scored by Mark Taylor (who does the same for "The Song Is You").
Even without Watts, Second Take would be a first-rate big-band album, as the Aschaffensburger ensemble is solidly impressive, even more so than on its admirable debut album, Bluesin' for a Cruisin' (which featured alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano), in 1996. Watts helps make this second outing even more captivating and memorable than the first.
University of Kentucky
Go! The Music of Bob Mintzer
Go! is not (entirely) a big-band album, as it encompasses four numbers by the University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble sandwiched between a pair of extended compositions for Wind Ensemble, all written by the well-known saxophonist Bob Mintzer who besides performing regularly with groups large and small (including The Yellowjackets) now teaches at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. The album takes its title from the first of these essays for winds, whose three aptly named movements are "Go," "Go Slow" and "Go Fast." After the big band has its say, the winds return with a four-part commentary, "Rhythm of the Americas." Both pieces for winds make their world premiere on the album, as does "There and Back," written for the Jazz Ensemble.
Although the liner notes aren't clear about it, it's a fairly safe bet that Mintzer is responsible for the enterprising tenor sax solos on almost every track, as not many tenors sound like that. (And that could be him unfurling the crisp bari solo on "Go Fast.") The tenor passages for winds may be written (that's not explicit either) but Mintzer is definitely improvising with the jazz ensemble. The only other solos are by an unnamed trombonist and trumpeter (both quite good) on the fast-moving blues, "Swangalang." The larger ensemble is also heard on "Beyond the Limit" and "Dialogue," the first written for a big band-reed section alone, the second built around improvisations by tenor sax and drums. The sections on the picturesque "Rhythm of the Americas" are "Convergence of English & French," "Afro-Caribbean," "Jazzical" and "Confluence." Mintzer's sources range from the Latin rhythms of Cuba and Puerto Rico to jazz, rhythm and blues, and classical composers such as Copland, Sravinsky, Gershwin and Mozart.
It's a neat if not exceptionally galvanic package on which everyone plays quite well, the Jazz Ensemble under director Miles Osland, the Wind Ensemble conducted by the university's director of bands, John Cody Birdwell. As the jazz content would be of most interest to readers of this column, it should be noted that Mintzer is a splendid composer, much of whose music is based on Latin forms and rhythms, of which he is quite fond. "Beyond the Limit," another Latin-based theme, is especially interesting, as it was written for (and is performed by) a big-band reed section sans rhythm, and each wind player functions like a percussion instrument. Drums introduce the vigorous "Dialogue," on which the tenor sax plays off the various themes and sonorities. Thanks to Mintzer and the ensemble's unnamed drummer, all the pieces fall into place without encumbrance. "Swangalang," a frisky blues, is the most groovy item on the menu, with buoyant soli for trombones and reeds enwrapping incisive statements by trombone, tenor and trumpet.
As a showcase for Mintzer's ample talents, the album works on every level. On the other hand, the jazz element comprises less than twenty-nine of its 76:23-minute playing time, which must be taken into consideration when appraising its over-all value.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: All of Me; The Master Plan; Getting Sentimental Over You; The Call; No Regret; Zog's Jog; Sad Blues; Up a Lazy River; Someday My Prince Will Come; Going Home, Part I; Going Home, Part II.
Personnel: James Morrison: composer, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, trombone, bass trombone, piano, guitar, banjo, bass. Jeff Hamilton: drums.
High on You
Tracks: High on You; Don't You Know I Care; The Meaning of the Blues; Bosco Sez; Pent-Up House; A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing; Minuet; Open Country; Without a Paddle.
Personnel: Pete Christlieb: co-leader, tenor, baritone sax; Linda Small Christlieb: co-leader, trombone; Bill Holman: arranger; Jeff Bunnell: trumpet; Mike McGuffey: trumpet; Bob Summers: trumpet; Ron Stout: trumpet; John Bambridge: alto sax; Gary Foster: alto sax; Terry Harrington: tenor sax; Kevin Garren: tenor, alto sax; Gene Cipriano: baritone sax, oboe; Joe Bagg: piano; Jim Hughart: bass; Putter Smith: bass; Steve Schaeffer: drums.
Distrust All Rules
Tracks: Distrust All Rules; Threepression; Easy Job; Eleven-Seven; B-Tango; Starlight; The Very Thought of You; Factory Reset.
Personnel: Henri Gerrits: composer, arranger, trombone; Joan Reinders: conductor; Rini Swinkels: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sander Zweerink: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bert Fransen: trumpet, flugelhorn; Herman Nijkamp: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jan-Willem te Kiefte: trumpet, flugelhorn; Gerlo Hesselink: alto, soprano sax, flute; Louis Gerrits: alto sax, clarinet; Volker Winck: tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Martin van der Horst: tenor sax, clarinet; Job Helmers: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Vincent Veneman: trombone; Bert Pfeiffer: trombone; Juliane Gralle: bass trombone (1-3, 6-7); Wolff Schenk: bass trombone (4, 5, 8); Dirk Balthaus: piano; Joep Lumeij: bass; Klaas van Donkersgoed: drums.
Tracks: The Song Is You; Joyous Reunion; Moonlight Serenade; Au Privave; Festival de Ritmo; My Noise; Last Season; Hip-Hop-Otamus; Agent 002; Second Take.
Personnel: Peter Linhart: leader, tenor sax; Ralf Noske: trumpet; Nikolai Schedy: trumpet; Christoph Lewandowski: trumpet; Lothar Kunkel: trumpet; Dominik Loh: trumpet; Markus Lihocky: alto, soprano sax, clarinet; Andreas Wojtanowitsch: alto sax; Wolfram Endemann: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Wolfgang Hussy: tenor sax; Peter Imhof: baritone sax; Martin Dasch: trombone; Thomas Krause: trombone; Martin Buchert: trombone; Harald Kullman: bass trombone (2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10); Michael Wirz: bass trombone (1, 3, 5, 8); Harald Kern: piano; Jan Sturmer: guitar; Robert Oursin: bass; Jan Wilk: drums; Piesba Supertino: percussion. Special guest artist: Ernie Watts: tenor, alto sax.
Tracks: Go! (Go / Go Slow / Go Fast); There and Back; Beyond the Limit; Dialogue; Swangalang; Rhythm of the Americas (Convergence of English and French / Afro-Caribbean / Jazzical / Confluence).
Personnel: Jazz Ensemble: Miles Osland: director; Andrew McGrannahan: trumpet; Patrick Van Arsdale: trumpet; Jas Lidyard: trumpet; Taylor Foley: trumpet; Taylor Huftaker: trumpet; Doug Drewek, Danny Jackson, Chris Strange, Will Stafford, Joe Carucci: reeds; Brad Keesler: trombone; Josh Dargavell: trombone; Chase Clark: trombone; Colby Norton: bass trombone; Alexandre Ferreira: bass trombone; Byron McChord: piano; Danny Cecil: bass; Paul Deatherage: drums. Wind Ensemble: John Cody Birdwell: conductor; no personnel listed.