Kris Berg & the Metroplexity Big Band / Michael Treni Big Band / Millennium Jazz Orchestra
Kris Berg & the Metroplexity Big Band
This Time / Last Year
Until now, bassist / educator Kris Berg, who oversees the Jazz Studies program at Collin College near Dallas, TX, has been widely known and respected as someone who writes and arranges songs for others to play. From now on, he'll doubtless be known and respected as leader of his own world-class ensemble, the Metroplexity Big Band, whose debut recording, This Time / Last Year, embodies half a dozen of Berg's engaging compositions and nine of his superlative charts.
Berg has undergirded an A-list of Dallas-area musicians with guest trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Wayne Bergeron, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and flutist Chris Vadala to produce an album that enfolds his music within a framework that is solid, spontaneous and swinging. Jenkins and Marsalis solo on the well-grooved opener, Sigmund Romberg's "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise." Jenkins reappears with tenor saxophonist Brian Clancy and drummer Stockton Helbing on Wayne Shorter's graceful "Night Dreamer," Vadala's alto flute is showcased on Luiz Bonfa's "The Gentle Rain," while Bergeron ushers the trumpets through their paces on Berg's funky "Games," solos on flugelhorn and sprays high notes on the minor blues "Forgotten Thoughts," and hangs above the clouds again on the Afro-Cuban toe-tapper, "Pah-Dah-Pah-Dah."
Guest stars aside, the MPBB has some formidable weapons of its own, which Berg employs wisely to add dash and color throughout his well-drawn arrangements. The foundation is sound, as Berg, Helbing, pianist Kurt Ellingson and guitarist Tom Burchill comprise a sharp and resilient rhythm section (pianist Roberto Verastegui sits in on "The Gentle Rain," guitarist Noel Johnston on "Games"). Section work is consistently admirable, and as for soloists, there are engaging statements from Clancy, Helbing, Johnston, Ellingson, tenor Jeff Robbins, altos Tim Ishii ("Forgotten Thoughts," whose Oliver Nelson influence is palpable), Collin Hauser ("Games") and Bruce Bohnstengel ("I'm Okay, We're OK!"), trumpeter Ken Edwards and trombonist Michael Burgess. Ishii is especially eloquent with Bergeron on "Thoughts," Edwards (on flugel) likewise on "This Time / Last Year," a lyrical set piece written by Berg for his "wife and best friend," Yvette. Completing the program is Berg's playful, up-tempo "RU Chicken?" (solos by Robbins, Ellingson and Helbing).
For those who may have been wondering, a word about the band's name: the Dallas-Fort Worth area is widely known as the Metroplex, hence the label Metroplexity Big Band. With This Time / Last Year, Kris Berg has added yet another feather to his already sizable and impressive cap, that of prominent bandleader. Let's hope he chooses to wear that cap quite often.
The Michael Treni Big Band
Boy's Night Out
The opening number on Boy's Night Out, the second recording by the Michael Treni Big Band, is, to say the least, imprecise. It announces that "Something's Coming," whereas the fact is something's already here; to be precise, one of the most well-stocked and exciting big bands to grace the New York scene in quite some time. Ably led by trombonist / arranger Treni (more about him anon), the band proves in every way that it is a force to be reckoned with, performing flawlessly as a unit while clearing space for a series of keen and resourceful solos by its several resident craftsmen.
Treni, once an up-and-coming trombonist in the Big Apple, abandoned the music business in the '80s to form a company specializing in wireless audio and language interpretation systems, returning to music several years ago as an arranger and eventually forming the MTBB with his friend and producer, Roy Nicolosi, who doubles as the group's baritone saxophonist. Treni's aim was to form a band that excelled at playing his kind of musiccharts inspired by Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, Bob Brookmeyer and other legendary arrangers but enriched by Treni's singular approach to the music. That he has done so is unmistakable from the opening measure to the endmost crescendo of Boy's Night Out.
A case in point is "Something's Coming," written by Leonard Bernstein for the Broadway musical West Side Story, a song whose natural swing is reinforced by Treni's clever use of muted trumpets in waltz time set against a rhythmic framework that underlines strong statements by trumpeter Vinnie Cutro and the band's key soloist, Jerry Bergonzi (on soprano sax). The bracing "Boy's Night Out," a tribute to Thad Jones that celebrates the joy of hanging out and playing in various nightspots, was written by Treni in 1978, well before the influx of so many talented women who have breathed into jazz a new life and diversity. The nimble solos are by soprano Sal Spicola, trombonist Philip Jones and trumpeter Chris Persad Group, The Dautaj, Marcus Gilmore , Coquito, Fri. It's always a pleasure to hear George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland," especially when performed by a world-class big band whose soloists are as sharp as trombonist Matt Bilyk and tenor Frank Elmo.
Spicola (alto) and Bergonzi (tenor) share solo duties on "Strayhorn," the first of two splendid charts by jazz educator / saxophonist Jerry Coker (the other is Billy Strayhorn's own composition, "U.M.M.G," which spotlights Bergonzi, pianist Charles Blenzig and alto Craig Yaremko). Rounding out the program are Treni's sensuous Latin-style ballad, "In My Quiet Time," his boisterous "What Is the World Coming To?" and perceptive arrangement of the standard "Here's That Rainy Day." Treni uses a string quartet on "Quiet Time" and "Rainy Day," blending Ken Hitchcock's alto flute on the former with earnest solos by Elmo (soprano) and bassist Takashi Otsuka. Hitchcock (tenor), Cutro, Yaremko and trombonist Bob Ferrel dazzle on "World," Blenzig and Treni on "Rainy Day," which opens temperately before morphing into an ebullient flag-waver.
If big bands are indeed dead (or at least comatose), why is it that outstanding ensembles such as Michael Treni's keep showing up? That's a question for the ages. Until someone works out a plausible answer, let's relax and enjoy the music.
Millennium Jazz Orchestra
Dutch composer / arranger Joan Reinders isn't well-known (in fact, hardly known at all) on this side of the Pond but really should be, as he is among the best anywhere at what he does, which is basically writing and arranging for big bands including the splendid Millennium Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Big Barchem Band). For Pretty Pumps, the MJO's seventh recording since it was formed in the millennial year 2000, Reinders wrote and arranged everything, and his work is as impressive as any big-band jazz you're likely to hear, in the Netherlands or well beyond its borders.
It goes without saying, of course (but we'll say it anyway), that even the most inspired compositions and charts are impractical without a capable band to play them. It is here that Reinders unfolds a winning hand, as the MJO is as polished as contemporary ensembles come (even after factoring in tenor saxophonist Remco Keijzer's over-the top screeching on the title selection). Alto Gerlo Hesselink adds a more moderate solo on that number, and is showcased on the elegant "Humble & Handy." Trombonist Vincent Veneman is a muted pleasure on the ballad "Alliance" and solos with baritone Job Helmers on the pensive finale, "Recovery." Helmers and bassist Joep Lumeij command center stage on the light-hearted "Epoxy," which opens the session, while a more subdued Keijzer shares solo duties with the ebullient pianist Dirk Balthaus on the free and easy "Schemer," Balthaus and trumpeter Bert Fransen on "Papoutsakia," a Bill Holman-like smorgasbord whose bracing grooves give the various sections (including rhythm) ample room to shine, which they clearly do.
Slowly but surely, the center of big-band jazz seems to be shifting eastward as more talented ensembles from Europe and Asia arise to challenge their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada. The Millennium Jazz Orchestra is one among many who are capable of going toe-to-toe with any band. The sections are clean, the soloists articulate and enterprising, while Reinders' charts are sharp and resourceful. A superlative big-band album by any measure.
Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra
Sharks & Manatees
The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra hails from Denver, CO, a Rocky Mountain metropolis that is home to a surprising number of blue-chip bands, the MJO among them. One of those ensembles, the H2 Big Band, is co-led by gentlemen whose surnames begin with the letter "H"trumpeter Alan Hood and pianist Dave Hansenand here we have another, MJO co-founder / trumpeter Scott Handler who leads his section flawlessly and summons the specter of high-note monarch Maynard Ferguson on Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The other co-founder, lead trombonist Kevin Buchanan, is superb on his feature, Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You." Speaking of high notes, the MJO's vocalist, Suzanne Morrison, ascends into the stratosphere on "Taki Rari," an aria once associated with the amazing Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac who was said to have a vocal range spanning more than four octaves.
A second trumpeter, Doug Barta, doubles as vocalist on the British favorite, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," and Joe Cocker's bromidic hymn to her, "You Are So Beautiful" (as a lyricist, Cocker, to put it charitably, ain't no Cole Porter, while Barta is several large steps removed from Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Matt Munro). There is one more vocal by Morrison who is suitably perky on "I Love Bein' Here with You." The rest of the album is instrumental, comprising three standards, "You Don't Know What Love Is," "Beauty and the Beast" and Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy" (the last a showcase for alto saxophonist Zack Cassell), Benny Carter's "Souvenir" and a trio of provocative originals by Eric Richards ("Fantasia on Kang Ding Love Song"), tenor saxophonist Ejric Bernhardt ("Sharks & Manatees") and music director Jim Mick ("Zen and the Art of Samba"). "Fantasia," based on Chinese folk music, sounds almost semi-classical at times (a mood enhanced by Cassell's debonair flute and alto). "Sharks & Manatees" is somewhat weighted down by Bernhardt's partisan rap (not a welcome sound to these ears; others may disagree), while "Zen" earns high marks for its Latin temper, airy charm and agile solos by Cassell (alto), trumpeter Dan Johnson and guitarist Serena Eads.
Richards arranged "You Don't Know What Love Is," which uncorks the session in an upbeat mode whose liveliness is sharpened by zestful solos from Johnson, pianist Gary Dempsey and alto Tyler Farr. The rhythm section (Dempsey, Eads, bassist Jason Malmberg, drummer Dan Aluisi) is in top form here, and is sturdy throughout. Dempsey and Bernhardt are the soloists on Gordon Goodwin's gently swinging arrangement of "Beauty and the Beast," Dempsey again on the easygoing "Souvenir." The MJO is superb, the music admirable, and Sharks & Manatees marks an impressive debut by another of the Rocky Mountain area's several outstanding jazz orchestras.
Howard University Jazz Ensemble
Ode to Life
Every year, almost like clockwork, director Fred Irby III ushers the Howard University Jazz Ensemble into a recording studio. And every year, after facing the music, the group emerges with an album that is an archetype of sharp and tasteful big-band jazz. 2011 was no exception, as the picturesque Ode to Life shines and swings from end to end, displaying the ensemble at its ardent and emphatic best in an engaging program of jazz standards, pop favorites and three impressive compositions by members of the orchestra.
You couldn't ask for a more tantalizing opener than Sonny Clark's "Blue Minor," a boppish flag-waver that breezes merrily along behind good-natured solos by trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed and pianist Samuel Prather, a trio that is heard from often as Irby wisely chooses to go with his strengths. Balbed is showcased on "Pure Imagination," the ballad "If Ever You're in My Arms Again" and Henry Mancini's "Two for the Road," solos with Prather and drummer Cedric Edmon on the pianist's composition, "On My Good Days," with guitarist Peter Muldoon on Muldoon's original, "Pledge to Micha," and with French hornist Ariel Shelton and guitarist Rick Peralta on Andrew Hill's "Mist Flower." Prather has Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beatty" to himself, is heard with an uncredited guitarist on Don Pullen's "Ode to Life" and with Balbed, Muldoon and bassist Eliot Seppa on Seppa's "Peace of Mind." McCoy is heard again with Balbed, Prather and Edmon on Lee Morgan's buoyant "Hocus Pocus."
HUJE's vibraphonist, the aptly named Quintin Mallette, is center stage on the venerable "Moody's Mood for Love" (nicely scored by Scott Silbert; and no, Mallette doesn't sing). Muldoon's electric guitar introduces his "Pledge to Micah," an even-tempered ballad on which he and Balbed shimmer. The two are joined out front by Prather and Seppa on the bassist's soft-flowing "Peace of Mind," after which Balbed puts the topping on the cake with a succulent manifesto on Mike Crotty's arrangement of the tasteful "Two for the Road." Irby's enterprising ensemble is first-class by any measure, and in Balbed, Prather, McCoy and Mallette has a quartet of soloists who are as proficient as you'll hear at the university level. Well done, HUJE; next year's almanac can't arrive soon enough.
Tracks and Personnel
This Time / Last Year
Tracks: Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise; Games; This Time / Last Year; Forgotten Thoughts; RU Chicken?; The Gentle Rain; Pah-Dah-Pah-Dah; Night Dreamer; I'm Okay, We're Okay!
Personnel: Kris Berg: leader, composer, arranger, bass; Keith Jourdan: trumpet (1, 3, 4, 6-8); Micah Bell: trumpet; Ken Edwards: trumpet; Jack Evans: trumpet (1, 3, 6, 8); Tyler Mire: trumpet (2, 4, 7, 9); Tim Ishii: alto sax, flute (1-4, 7, 8); Collin Hauser: alto sax, flute (1-4, 6-9); Jeff Robbins: tenor, alto sax, flute; Brian Clancy: tenor sax, flute; Bruce Bohnstengel: alto sax, flute (3, 8, 9); Sarah Roberts: alto sax, flute, bass clarinet (6, 8); Kevin McNerney: baritone sax, tenor sax (6); Michael Burgess: trombone; Chris Seiter: trombone (1-4, 6-9); Simon Willats: trombone (1, 3, 6, 8, 9); Milas Yoes: trombone (2, 4, 7); A. G. Robeson: bass trombone; Kent Ellingson: piano (1-5, 7-9); Roberto Verastegui: piano (6); Tom Burchill: guitar (1, 3-9); Noel Johnston: guitar (2); Stockton Hellbing: drums. Special guests: Wayne Bergeron: trumpet (2, 4, 7); Clay Jenkins: trumpet (1, 3, 8); Delfeayo Marsalis: trombone (1); Chris Vadala: alto flute (6).
Boy's Night Out
Tracks: Something's Coming; Boy's Night Out; Lullaby of Birdland; Strayhorn; In My Quiet Time; What Is the World Coming To?; U.M.M.G.; Here's That Rainy Day.
Personnel: Michael Treni: composer, arranger, leader, trombone; Bob Millikan: trumpet, flugelhorn; Vinnie Cutro: trumpet, flugelhorn; Chris Persad: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bill Ash: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sal Spicola, alto, soprano sax, flute, piccolo, clarinet/ Craig Yaremko, alto sax, flute, alto flute, clarinet; Jerry Bergonzi, tenor, soprano sax; Frank Elmo, tenor sax, alto flute, clarinet; Ken Hitchcock, tenor sax, alto flute, clarinet; Roy Nicolosi: baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Matt Bilyk: trombone; Bob Ferrel: trombone; Philip Jones: trombone, bass trombone; Charles Blenzig: piano; Takashi Otsuka: bass; Ron Vincent: drums; Rick DeKovessey: percussion; Faina Agranov: violin (5, 8); Minjee Kang: violin (5, 8); Michael Alas: viola (5, 8); Jeffrey Szabo: cello (5, 8).
Tracks: Epoxy; Pretty Pumps; Alliance; Schemer; Humble & Dandy; Papoutsakia; Recovery.
Personnel: Joan Reinders: composer, arranger, 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; Gerard Grobben: alto, soprano sax, clarinet; Remco Keijzer: tenor, soprano sax, flute; Martin van der Horst: tenor sax, clarinet; Job Helmers: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Vincent Veneman: trombone; Henri Gerrits: trombone; Jochen Niehaves: trombone; Bauke Kalma: bass trombone, tuba; Dirk Balthaus: piano; Joep Limeij: bass; Klaas van Donkersgoed: drums.
Sharks & Manatees
Tracks: You Don't Know What Love Is: Beauty and the Beast; Souvenir; I Love Bein' Here with You; Sharks & Manatees; Bridge Over Troubled Water; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; Nature Boy; You Are So Beautiful; Fantasia on Kang Ding Love Song; Taki Rari; The Nearness of You; Zen and the Art of Samba.
Personnel: Jim Mick: music director; Scott Handler: trumpet; David Froman: trumpet; Doug Barta: trumpet, vocals; Mark Ibsen: trumpet; Dan Johnson: trumpet; Zack Cassell: alto, soprano sax, flute; Tyler Farr: alto sax, flute; Ejric Bernhardt: tenor, soprano sax, flute; Alan Nowicki: tenor sax, clarinet; Mark Halberstadt: baritone sax (1, 2, 4, 5, 7-9, 13); Doug Blease: baritone sax (3, 6, 10-12); Kevin Buchanan: trombone; Greg Hoppe: trombone; Ron Argotsinger: trombone; Jace Van Bradt: bass trombone; Serena Eads: guitar; Gary Dempsey: piano; Jason Malmberg: bass; Alan Aluisi: drums; Suzanne Morrison: vocals.
Ode to Life
Tracks: Blue Minor; On My Good Days; Pure Imagination; Hocus Pocus; Ugly Beauty; Ode to Life; Mist Flower; If Ever You're in My Arms Again; Moody's Mood for Love; Pledge to Micha; Peace of Mind; Two for the Road.
Personnel: Fred Irby III: director; Jonathon Neal: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jared Bailey: trumpet, flugelhorn; Donvonte McCoy: trumpet, flugelhorn; Javan Bowden: trumpet, flugelhorn; Danielle Ashton: trumpet, flugelhorn; Anthony Daniel: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ashton Vines: alto, soprano sax, flute; Isaiah Allen: alto sax; Elijah Balbed: tenor sax; Brandon Holtmeyer: tenor sax; Calvin Moland II: tenor sax; Brandon Barnett: baritone sax; Ariel Shelton: French horn; Christopher Steele: trombone; Torrance Hill: trombone; Isaac Bell IV: trombone; Curry Hackett: bass trombone; Brent Gossett: tuba; Samuel Prather: piano, composer; Quintin Mallette: vibes, percussion; Rick Peralta: electric guitar; Peter Muldoon: electric guitar, composer; Eliot Seppa: acoustic, electric bass, composer; Jarrin Moore: acoustic bass; Cedric Edmon II: drums.