James Morrison / Tall & Small / Millennium Jazz Orchestra
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.