R3: Special Big Band / Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra / Empire Jazz Orchestra
Truth be told, that's no easy task when the playlist includes resourceful variations on standards by Schamber ("Time After Time"), Baylock ("Over the Rainbow"), Mantooth ("Misty"), Williams ("In the Still of the Night"), Curnow ("Speak Low") and Taylor ("Bewitched"), as well as trumpeter Culver's deft arrangement of Dave Frishberg's seductive "Peel Me a Grape" (one of three vocals by Edye Evans Hyde), Braymen's snappy treatment of Juan Tizol's "Perdido," Martin's savory "Clam Chowder," Norman's urbane "Trilogy" (whose brief introduction calls to mind Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments") andagain, last but not least"Samba Dees Godda Do It," an irrepressible Latin masterpiece by the incomparable Tom Kubis. The Gull Lake Orchestra plays them well, especially so for a seven-year-old regional ensemble many of whose members are part-timers (and almost all of whom have been with the orchestra since it was formed in 2005). Brass and reeds are suitably tight and well-groomed, the rhythm section agile and steady, soloists as alert and efficient as would more than likely be the case in groups of comparable makeup and experience. Besides Culver, who solos on three numbers, they include trumpeters Danny Barber and Scott Cowan, alto Greg Marsden, tenor Gary McCoury, trombonist Earlie Braggs (featured on "Speak Low"), pianist Terry Lower and drummer Tim Froncek (whose brushwork and timekeeping on "Still of the Night" is outstanding, as is the ensemble work). Hyde earns mixed grades, as she fares quite well on "Grape" and "Bewitched," rather less so on "I Just Found Out About Love" (arranged by Menza).
In sum, a splendid debut for Boesch and his youthful Gull Lake Orchestra. The hope is that the leader can find enough gigs for his charges to keep the enterprise afloat, as Michigan is fortunate to have an ensemble of this caliber residing within its borders (as indeed would any state from coast to coast).
Empire Jazz Orchestra
Accentuate the Positive
The Empire Jazz Orchestra is the sort of accomplished, community-based big band that, in a perfect world, would make its home in almost every hamlet in America. Furthermore, every such group would have a singer as bright and personable as Colleen Pratt who shines on the title track and Moe Koffman's "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" (yes, it does have lyrics). As it is, the EJO, a professional jazz repertory ensemble, makes its home at Schenectady County (NY) Community College. Luckily for the rest of us, it has the resources to share its music on CDs, the sixth of which under director William Meckley is Accentuate the Positive.
One of the many bounties such groups present is an opportunity to hear seldom-performed works by such masters of the idiom as Mary Lou Williams, Oliver Nelson and Thelonious Monk, in this case "Walkin' and Swingin'" and "Scorpio" (Williams), "Sound Piece for Orchestra" (Nelson) and "Monk's Point." Nelson also arranged "Monk's Point" and the venerable standard "Sidewalks of New York." Rounding out the impressive program are Clare Fischer's amiable tribute to Ellington, "The Duke," and John Bambridge's playful skirmish for tenor saxophones, "Sax Alley" (with Kevin Barcomb and Brian Patneaude in the lists and trading well-aimed volleys). Nelson's three-movement "Sound Piece," the weightiest item on the menu, is seductive throughout while the less than nine-minute playing time assures that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Nor, in fact, do any of the other numbers, the longest of which at 5:38 is "Monk's Point." Pianist Cliff Brucker, one of the EJO's several talented soloists, introduces "The Duke," is showcased with Barcomb on "Walkin' and Swingin,'" and sits in for Thelonious on "Monk's Point," on which Barcomb and bassist Otto Gardner also solo. Others who entice the ear include trumpeters Steve Lambert and Peter Bellino, trombonists Rick Rosoff and Gary Barrow, alto Keith Pray and clarinetist Brett Wery.
For a live recording (no second chances or do-overs), Accentuate the Positive is superb, with the EJO in marvelous form and the sound quality first-rate. As noted, it's a shame there aren't more ensembles like this one dotting the landscape in our fair country, but if you can't be in Schenectady to hear in person one of the few that endure, this album is the next best thing.
Duke Ellington Legacy
Single Petal of a Rose