"Lone Wolf" Finds Plenty to Chew On
When all is said and done, there's some interesting music on Vera Cruzbut there could have been so much more. In other words, even taking into consideration the financial burden involved in producing a recording these days, it's hard to endorse without proviso a CD whose playing time is a meager thirty-seven minutes. So it's thumbs-up for content, thumbs-down for value.
NYJO and the Vocalists
Sing a Song of Ashton
The thirty-eight selections on the colorful 2-CD set Sing a Song of Ashton have at least two things in common: first, all (save one) were written, co-written or otherwise inspired by Bill Ashton, director emeritus of Great Britain's superb National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO); second, even though seventeen vocalists (including Ashton) take part in the enterprise, the level of artistry is consistently high throughout, thanks in part to the splendid and unflagging support provided by NYJO.
The numbers have been culled from the orchestra's various albums including several devoted to showcasing the talents of its band singers, male and female (even though the girls outnumber the boys fourteen to four). A few songs were recorded live, most in a studio. There's no point in singling out any of the singers for excessive praise, as each one is quite good. The compositions are another matter. As Ashton presumably wrote the bulk of them (melody, lyrics or both; no credits are given on the album), he shows that he's not only a superb bandleader but a first-class songwriter as well. As a singer, Ashton duets respectably (singing in French) with Atila Huseyin on one of his tasteful compositions, "Paris Is for Lovers." Atila's is the first male voice heard, after a dozen tracks on Disc 1, in another duet, this one with Annabel Williams on "Needs Must."
Sound quality, while variable, is never less than adequate, and the singers are able to get their message across, even with the orchestra blowing up a storm behind them. There is, of course, the matter of an "accent," but in most cases that poses no problem. In other circumstances, several of the songs on this anthology could perhaps be standards. As they were written, however, for singers backed by a jazz orchestra, it must be presumed that relatively few music-lovers have heard them, even in Great Britain. That's their loss, as Sing a Song of Ashton is one of the more pleasurable "vocal albums" to spring forth in some time. As icing on the cake, each of the CDs logs a playing time of more than seventy-five minutes.
Duke Ellington Orchestra
Big Bands Live
With the number of unreleased recordings by renowned big bands growing ever smaller as time takes its inevitable toll, it's always a pleasure to welcome a new one, in this case a charming concert by the Duke Ellington Orchestra taped in September 1967 at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, Germany. Even though the packaging and presentation by Jazzhaus Records is slapdash at best, fans of Ellington should find the music itself laudable, as it consists largely of lesser-known compositions by Ellington, ably performed by such long-time stalwarts as Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton and Lawrence Brown. Joining Duke in the rhythm section are bassist John Lamb and drummer Rufus "Speedy" Jones (standouts with clarinetist Hamilton and baritone Carney on Ellington's "La Plus Belle Africaine").
The orchestra is in fine form throughout, while sound quality for a concert performance is quite acceptable. The music was played under a cloud, however, as Ellington's chief arranger and alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, who contributed "Johnny Come Lately," the pensive "Freakish Lights" and a truncated version of "Take the 'A' Train," was terminally ill and died a few weeks after the concert was presented. Everyone soldiers on, however, and the concert's buoyancy tempers any feeling of sadness or loss. Several of the orchestra's luminaries have star turns: clarinetist Procope on "Swamp Goo," tenor Gonsalves on "Knob Hill," trombonist Brown on Rue Bleue," Carney on "A Chromatic Love Affair," alto Hodges on "Freakish Lights," trumpeter Anderson on Raymond Fol's "Salome," trumpeter Williams on "The Shepherd" and "Tutti for Cootie," Jones on the spirited finale, "Kixx."
The liner notes, which seem to have been cut off almost in mid-sentence, provide little in the way of insight, but happily, Ellington is there at the end of each number to give credit where it is due. A splendid concert performance by one of the big band era's most esteemed ensembles (the audience loved it), one that is well worth seeking out.
In Smaller Packages . . .
The Claire Daly Quartet
North Coast Brewing Co.