Swingin' on a Riff . . . Hangin' by a Thread?
Stand Up Eight
Beautiful music, marvelously performed and superbly recorded. Shouldn't that be enough? Perhaps so. Clearly, composer / arranger Steve Owen, director of the Jazz Studies program at the University of Oregon, had a definite game plan in mind as he envisioned his debut album, Stand Up Eight, subtitled "Music for Large Jazz Ensemble." The finished product encompasses seven of Owen's sophisticated compositions, one by Cole Porter ("Everything I Love") and another ("Kid A") by the group Radiohead, all of which were arranged by Owen. Several of the pieces were commissioned for other bands or events, which is indicative of Owen's standing among his peers.
While most of Owen's thematic devices adhere closely to well-worn paths, the tempestuous "State of the Union" may best be described as an experiment in sound whose acceptance rests in large measure on the equanimity of the individual listener. According to Owen, the song represents his attempt to "give a voice to the frustrations of the average, intelligent person striving to be heard over the din of @#$%^ parading as news and by a public unwilling to face reality." To do so, he employs the device of an off-stage supervisor whose pleas into a muted microphone go unheeded, overridden by the mandate of an orchestra with other goals to achieve. The end result is rather reminiscent of Ken Nordine's iconic Word Jazz.
The album's cryptic title is taken from its opening number, "Fall Down Seven, Stand Up Eight," an ode to perseverance in the face of adversity written for Owen's children (he doesn't say how many but there are more than one). It's a progressive, minor-key narrative that serves as a showcase for the splendid tenor saxophonist Don Aliquo and sets the stage for "As of Now," a song, says Owens, that "just feels good" (as do the solos by bassist Erik Applegate and trombonist Paul McKee), and "A Delicate Balance," a placid samba (or bossa) inspired by the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Clare Fischer. Clay Jenkins' linear trumpet is out front on the ballad "Still," a bow to Miles Davis, while baritone Wil Swindler, trombonist Dave Glenn and percussionist Brad Dutz have their say on the West African-influenced "One Voice." Owen's arrangement of "Everything I Love" is uncommon, to say the least, its shapely melody cleverly veiled beneath the trappings of "a dance scene from an old Hollywood musical" complete with tap routine (reproduced here by drummer Jim White) and inevitable fade to black. The multifaceted "Kid A," commissioned by Germany's Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band, embodies sinuous solos by Jenkins and tenor Peter Sommer. Soprano John Gunther then wraps things up with Owen's heartfelt anthem, "Following in Your Footsteps," wrtten for his father, Charles Owen.
Big bands, it should be noted, have come a long way since Basie, Ellington, Herman, Kenton and their peers were riding high. Stand Up Eight provides a credible glimpse into the mindset of today's big bands and the ways in which they are likely to evolve in years to come. Not everyone will appreciate the new template, nor should they. Those who do, however, may find the passage quite invigorating and pleasurable.
Bernt Rosengren Big Band
With Horace Parlan / Doug Raney
As a bandleader, Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren takes his cue from such masters of swing as Count Basie, and nowhere is that more apparent than on "Hip Walk," the opening number on this tasteful album whose freshness and well-defined sound belie the fact that it was recorded more than two decades ago, in 1980, five years after the band was formed. Rosengren solos on "Hip Walk" with his American guests, pianist Horace Parlan and guitarist Doug Raney, who are heard from on most of the nine tracks, seven of which were composed (and all arranged) by Rosengren.