Dave Brubeck: Small Groups, Large Stature
Norman David has done some moving around in his more than three decades as a respected working musician, and wherever he has gone, the Eleventethis "passion for many years"has come along for the ride: in Boston, Maine, New York City and, most recently, Philadelphia, from whence the group's latest incarnation has recorded the appropriately named At This Time. (As who knows where the Eleventet may be at this time a year from now, or a decade?) The title also denotes where David stands "at this time" in terms of composing and arranging; he wrote every number save the Academy Award-winning standard, "Secret Love," and arranged them all, as well as playing soprano saxophone in the ensemble's four-man reed section, which includes alto Dick Oatts, tenor George Garzone and baritone Mark Allen.
David's compositions are contemporary in the best sense of the word; there are, however, no tunes that linger long in the memory bank or lend themselves to whistling or humming. A few more standards would not have been amiss; "Secret Love" (given a minor-key make-over) is in fact a highlight, as well as a song that has stood the test of time and quickens the mind long after the recording has ended. That is not to say that David's compositions are less than agreeable, simply that they lack the allure or staying power of a "Secret Love." There's certainly no shame in that, as few songs do, especially those written to serve as jazz themes, not for mass consumption.
One advantage of an Eleventet (four saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm) is that it can sound like a big band or small group, depending on the particular arrangement, and David writes with that in mind, blending bold ensemble passages with others that convey a small-group dynamic while setting aside ample space for improvisation. Oatts, Garzone and trumpeter Tim Hagans are widely known as resourceful soloists, and the others aren't far behind, especially Allen, pianist Tom Lawton and trombonist Randy Kapralick. Lawton is one-third of an unsung rhythm section (the others are bassist John Hebert and drummer Dan Monaghan) that performs admirably throughout. As for David, he is out front on three numbers, and his are the only solos that failed to produce an auspicious impression on these earsa purely subjective appraisal, one with which other listeners may disagree.
When all is said, done and written, David and the Eleventet have recorded an album that is in its way as smart and stylish as any other, at least At This Time.
Fred Hess Big Band
There was a time when most big bands based their persona on a handful of proven and predictable ingredients: tempestuous rhythms, formidable ensemble passages, screaming shout choruses. You could always be sure that Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton or Buddy Rich would find more than one way to shake you out of your cozy seat and set your toes to tapping. That was then; this is now, when most bands are built along the lines of saxophonist Fred Hess's well-bred Colorado-based ensemble: able to swing hard when necessary but as a rule more closely attuned to the nature and subtleties of contemporary themes than their swaggering predecessors.
For Speak, his third big-band recording and sixteenth over-all, Hess has written and arranged five engaging tunes to accompany guitarist Tommy Walker's eloquent "Speak to Me" (which Hess also arranged), and has buttressed the ensemble by enlisting the sizable talents of trombonist John Fedchock who once wrote for and played in one of Woody Herman's celebrated Herds. Back for a third go-round is the versatile drummer Matt Wilson who keeps the rhythm section on its toes from beginning to end. Brass and reeds are earnest and attentive, working together like a well-oiled machine.