R3: Special Big Band / Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra / Empire Jazz Orchestra
R3: Special Big Band
The "R3" in this Brazilian-based band's name refers to brothers Rafael, Renato and Roger Rocha who together comprise its heart and soul. The "Special" pertains to just about everything else on this impressive debut album. Indeed, there could be even more "R's" in the title, as the pianist is Flavio Rocha (presumably another sibling), Robson Rodrigues plays electric bass and Joabe Reis trombone. But those three R's will more than suffice. And while no more than nine musicians are listed on any particular number, that is misleading, as Roger Rocha doubles from time to time as a complete saxophone section and brother Rafael does the same for trombones, thanks to overdubbing. That's not to say that everything is strictly "big band," as the trumpets sit out on three tracks while Bruno Santos plays flugelhorns (plural) on another with Roger on tenor and soprano sax and Rafael on Fender Rhodes.
Rafael Rocha serves as the band's chief arranger (ten of a dozen tracks); brother Roger co-arranged the buoyant opener, "Vem com Josue Lutar em Jericho" (Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho). Apropos the other charts, one (the brief, chorale-like "Sou Feliz") was written by Santos (for brass and reeds only), the other ("O Festim de Gloria") by Luiz Vanderlei Rocha (verified in the liner notes as father of the brood, akin to a Latin-style Ellis Marsalis and Sons). Roger (tenor, soprano sax) and Rafael are the group's principal soloists, and each is splendid, as is Renato who keeps the rhythm percolating with help from Flavio, bassists Rodrigues, Cristiano Martins, Andre Vasconcelos and Hugo Maciel, guitarist Giovani Malini and percussionist Leo De Paula. Others who improvise with aplomb are Santos, Malini, trumpeter Elias Junior and tenor saxophonists Marcelo Martins and Paolo Levi.
"Jericho," as it turns out, isn't the only familiar tune; "Ha Um Pais" is in reality "Danny Boy," and "Porque Vivo Esta" (emphatically introduced by Renato's pliable drum set) sounds like another specimen from the Great American Songbook whose thinly disguised melody has managed (so far) to confound these usually dependable ears (or, it could be an English folk song from the Ted Heath library). Be that as it may, even the lesser-known tunes are consistently engaging, thanks to Rafael's well-drawn arrangements and the band's unswerving expertise. The samba "Aonde for Irei" is bright and lyrical, the ballads "Como Agradecer a Jesus" and "Alvo Mais Que a Neve" warm and beguiling with earnest solos by Roger and Rafael. That's not to underplay anything else, as this is an album that gladdens from start to finish; R3 is indeed a "Special" big band, one that is well worth hearing.
Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra
Gull Lake Jazz
As leader Harry Boesch observes in the liner notes, even though most of the songs on the Michigan-based Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra's debut recording were written more than half a century ago, there is a Timeless quality to them, thanks in part to the nature of jazz itself and to the talent and creativity of present-day arrangers whose singular vision helps transform well-worn evergreens into themes that sound as fresh as if they'd been written yesterday. The maestros whose handiwork is on display here are Don Schamber, Alan Baylock, the late Frank Mantooth, Bob Curnow, Patrick Williams, Tim Culver, Don Menza, Jim Martin, Tom Kubis, Mark Taylor, Vince Norman, Chris Braymen and, last but by no means least, Mike Barone, whose perceptive arrangement of Bob Nolan's Western classic, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (for which Barone is mistakenly given composer credit on the album jacket) blows any and all competitors across the turnpike and into a neighboring county.
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
The Duke Ellington Legacy is a nine-piece ensemble founded by Edward Kennedy Ellington II, the Duke's grandson and son of Mercer Ellington who led the new Ellington orchestra for a number of years after his father's death in 1974. Single Petal of a Rose, the group's second recording, is enhanced on five tracks by the presence of the veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person and further amplified by the admirable arranging skills of pianist Norman Simmons and saxophonist / music director Virginia Mayhew. Ellington himself is the guitarist, teaming with Simmons, bassist Tom DiCarlo, drummer Paul Wells and percussionist Sheila Earley to comprise a sturdy rhythm section. Vocalist Nancy Reed is another decisive asset, delivering open-hearted readings of "In My Solitude," "In a Mellow Tone," "Squeeze Me" and "Love You Madly."
While most of the music is from the Ellington / Billy Strayhorn library, there are two exceptions: Erskine Hawkins' gin-soaked "After Hours" and Simmons' assertive blues, "Home Grown." Aside from his notable talents as a composer, arranger and accompanist, Simmons is a splendid soloist as well, as he shows from the outset on the gossamer title selection (dedicated to the leader's mother, Evelyn), on which his unaccompanied piano weaves an entrancing spell. Simmons is showcased again on "After Hours" and Strayhorn's tender "Lotus Blossom," trombonist Noah Bless on Strayhorn's pensive study in self-analysis, "Blood Count." Mayhew, another first-rate improviser, is heard to good advantage on five numbers, while the other member of the front line, trumpeter Jami Dauber (like Mayhew an alumna of the all-female big band DIVA), is in fine form on "Happy Go Lucky Local" (perhaps best known to some as "Night Train"), "Home Grown," "Mellow Tone," "Squeeze Me" and "Love You Madly." Completing the program are Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" and "Lush Life" (the last with a charming introduction by Simmons).
Even though it's far from garden-fresh, the music of Ellington / Strayhorn has stood the test of time, and it's always a kick to hear it again, especially when dressed in a brand new wardrobe. Thanks in part to the Duke's grandson, the Duke Ellington Legacy remains alive and well, and that's a good thing. For Ellington fansand they are legionas well as music-lovers everywhere, Single Petal of a Rose bears witness again that music of this stature has no shelf-life.
Washington State University Jazz Big Band
As so many of today's university-level jazz ensembles are so well-schooled (pardon the pun) that there's scarcely enough daylight to single out one from another, they must be measured according to other criteria including the music they have chosen to play: is it interesting enough to draw the listener's attention and keep him or her immersed in its themes throughout the length of an entire album? It is here that Washington State University earns a slim edge, as Zoot Suit, the band's second recording under Greg Yasinitsky's able direction, is comprised of nearly a dozen captivating tunes, well-written by Yasinitsky and eight other composers and well-played by five groups spanning the years 2009-2011.
While Yasinitsky wrote a pair of the album's more engaging themes, "Zoot Suit" and "Saratoga," they are no more than a slight step ahead of Lynn Petersen's animated "Three Way Stop," tenor saxophonist Patrick Sheng's high-flying "Monkey King" or alto Stan Sabourin's assertive "Ozone" (on which he solos with pianist Charles Wicklander). Sheng is the featured soloist on "Stop" and Billy Strayhorn's often-crossed "Chelsea Bridge," alto David Crow on Sam Jones' lyrical "Unit Seven," while baritone Matt Lanka shines with trumpeter Brendan McMurphy on "Saratoga" and with Wicklander on Brent Edstrom's muscular arrangement of the traditional folk hymn "Down by the Riverside." Estrom also deftly remodeled George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" (solos by Sheng, Crow and drummer Scott Langdon). Guest trombonist Matt Finders is in the pocket on his own shuffling composition, "Terilyn's Dance," and the ensemble fashions a likable groove from the outset on Bill Liston's sunny opener, "Tri-Bop." Tenors Sarah Cosano and Oliver Walter solo with Wicklander and bassist Tanner Brown on "Tri-Bop," with Wicklander, Brown, Crow and Langdon on "Zoot Suit."
Sound quality is first rate, playing time respectable at roughly one hour. Most decisive, hardly any of the time is squandered as Yasinitsky's undergrads put their collective shoulders to the wheel and keep their eyes on the ball to assure that every number is given its due. There aren't many big-band albums, especially at the college level, that are a pleasure to hear from end to end; this is one of them.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Vem comJosue Lutar Em Jerico; Aonde for Irei; So O Senhor e Deus; Como Agradecer a Jesus; Ha Um Pais; De Valor em Valor; O Rei Esta Voltando; O Festim de Gloria; Porque Vivo Esta; As Palavras de Jesus; Alvo Mais Que a Neve; Sou Feliz.
Personnel: Roger Rocha: co-leader, alto, soprano, tenor, baritone sax; Rafael Rocha: co-leader, trombone, bass trombone, piano, Fender Rhodes (8), acoustic bass (10); Renato Rocha: co-leader, drums; Elias Junior: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bruno Santos: trumpet, flugelhorn; Moises Alves: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paulo Levi: tenor sax; Ademir Junior: tenor sax; Joabe Reis: trombone; Flavio Rocha: piano; Vitor Goncalves: piano; Giovani Malini: guitar; Cristiano Martins: electric, acoustic bass; Robson Rodriguez: electric bass; Hugo Maciel: electric bass; Andre Vasconcelos: acoustic bass; Leo de Paula: percussion.
Tracks: Time After Time; Over the Rainbow; Misty; Peel Me a Grape; In the Still of the Night; Speak Low; Tumbleweeds; I Just Found Out About Love; Clam Chowder; Samba Dees Godda Do It; Bewitched; Trilogy; Perdido.
Personnel: Harry Boesch: leader, trombone; Danny Barber: trumpet; David Wells: trumpet; Scott Cowan: trumpet; Tim Culver: trumpet; Mallory Bourdo: trumpet (1, 6, 13); Mark Greer: alto, soprano sax, flute; Frank Silva: alto sax; Greg Marsden: alto sax (4, 7, 8. 11); Gary McCoury: tenor, soprano sax, flute; Sandy Shaw: tenor sax; Tommy Proulx: tenor sax (4, 7, 8, 11); Chuck Lund: baritone sax; Theo Kuepfer: baritone sax (4, 7, 8, 11); Paul Brewer: trombone; Earlie Braggs: trombone; Brian Nichols: trombone (1, 6, 13); Scott Grupke: bass trombone; Terry Lower: piano; Sam Weber: bass; Tim Froncek: drums; Edye Evans Hyde: vocals (4, 8, 11).
Accentuate the Positive
Tracks: Accentuate the Positive; The Duke; Walkin' and Swingin'; Scorpio; Swingin' Shepherd Blues; Sidewalks of New York; Monk's Point; Sound Piece for Jazz Orchestra (Movements 1, 2, 3); Sax Alley.
Personnel: Dr. William Meckley: music director, conductor; Jon Bronk: trumpet; Scott Thompson: trumpet; Terry Gordon: trumpet; Peter Bellino: trumpet; Steve Lambert: trumpet; Keith Pray, Jim Corigliano, Kevin Barcomb, Brian Patneaude, Brett Wery: reeds; Gary Barrow: trombone; Richard Rosoff: trombone; Ken DeRegon: trombone; Dan Cordell: bass trombone; Cliff Bruckner: piano; Mike Novakowski: guitar; Mark Foster: vibes, percussion; Otto Gardner: bass; Bob Halek: drums; Colleen Pratt: vocals.
Single Petal of a Rose
Tracks: Dedication by Norman Simmons; Single Petal of a Rose; Happy Go Lucky Local; In My Solitude; Johnny Come Lately; Home Grown; Blood Count; In a Mellow Tone; Upper Manhattan Medical Group; Just Squeeze Me; Lush Life; After Hours; Love You Madly; Lotus Blossom.
Personnel: Jamie Dauber: trumpet; Virginia Mayhew: tenor sax, clarinet; Noah Bless: trombone; Edward Kennedy Ellington II: guitar; Norman Simmons: piano; Tom DiCarlo: bass; Paul Wells: drums; Sheila Earley: percussion; Nancy Reed: vocals. Special Guest-Houston Person: tenor sax.
Tracks: Tri-Bop; Zoot Suit; Chelsea Bridge; Terilyn's Dance; The Monkey King; Saratoga; Down By the Riverside; Unit 7; I've Got Rhythm?; Ozone; Three Way Stop.
Personnel: Greg Yasinitsky: director; Frederick "Dave" Snider: director (5); Tracks 2, 10-Tyson Livingston: trumpet; Alex Niemi: trumpet; Jim Kerr: trumpet; Isaac Klander: trumpet; Stan Sabourin: alto sax; David Crow: alto sax; Sarah Cosano: tenor sax; Oliver Walter: tenor sax; Jonathan Urmenita: baritone sax; Gavin Carney: trombone; Bryce Horn: trombone; Eric Power: trombone; P.J. Kelley: trombone; Charles Wicklander: piano; Tanner Brown: bass; Scott Langdon: drums. Tracks 1, 8-Same as 2, 10; add Brendan Hedel: trumpet. Track 5-Janel Navran: trumpet, for Alex Niemi; Patrick Sheng: tenor sax, for Oliver Walter; Matt Lanka: baritone sax, for Jonathan Urmenita; Drake da Ponte: trombone; Hannah Balash: trombone, for Gavin Carney, Eric Power. Tracks 3, 7, 9, 11-Same as Track 5; add Keldon Plude: trumpet. Tracks 4, 6-Gabe DeMiero: tenor sax, for Sarah Cosano; Brendan McMurphy: trumpet; Miles Raker: trumpet, for Janel Navran, Jim Kerr; Matt Grimes: bass, for Tanner Brown; Ted Powers: drums, for Scott Langdon; add Roger Johnson: guitar. Special guest soloist-Matt Finders: trombone (4).