Pointing Fingers... And Naming Names
As the countdown continues toward the last Big Band Report in June, the time has come to point fingers and name namesin other words, to compile a short list of contemporary jazz musicians who have risen above the norm to help make life more pleasurable for one devoted listener. These are, mind you, personal choices, and the list is far from inclusive; while some of the names may be new to you, rest assured they have earned their places. You may notice that no guitarists or bassists are named, and there's a reason for that: most of them sound about the same to me, and so there is no one who warrants special praise. Blasphemous, perhaps (especially for someone who writes about jazz), but there you have it. As long as a guitarist or bassist does his (or her) job (as most of them do) and paves the way for others to do theirs, I'm happy. Having said that, let's get down to business, looking first at an indispensable component in any big band, the trumpet section.
Starting from the west and moving eastward, there are more than a few trumpet stars on the Left Coast who can do it all: lead a section, solo with assurance or simply blend in as part of a well-oiled team. Two that stand out are Carl Saunders and Wayne Bergeron, whose breathtaking solos often veer into the realm of the incredible. Many's the time I've listened to Saunders solo while thinking to myself, "Seeing is believing, so I know he must be doing that but as it's really beyond the capability of any human being, perhaps it's my imagination playing tricks." And this from someone who saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie and even Clifford Brown in their prime and has listened in awe to the Spanish master, Rafael Mendez. Saunders' solos might best be described as mind-boggling, Bergeron's as exercises in sheer power and elasticity. And when it comes to solos that are models of eloquence and consistency, few trumpeters anywhere can surpass Bob Summers, another "anonymous" West Coast standout.
As it turns out, Summers does have an equal right here in the Southwest. I am referring of course to everyone's favorite mentor and role model, the great Bobby Shew, who bows to no one when it comes to over-all trumpet artistry, from lead players to soloists. Neither does Rob Parton, one of the best in the Midwest, who can stand his ground with almost any marksman this side of Maynard Ferguson when it comes to playing lead or soloing. Maynard, of course, continues to be the gold standard, and anyone who says otherwise is either stretching the truth or hasn't been listening closely. As for solos, the Midwest boasts another luminary in the underrated Art Davis. Moving on to the East Coast, nothing would be amiss with either Jim Ward or Dave Stahl in the lead trumpet chair, while Marvin Stamm could handle the solo work with ease, as could Brazilian expat Claudio Roditi.
Which brings us to the trombones. The West Coast is loaded with blue-chip players, from Andy Martin and Scott Whitfield to Bob McChesney, Bill Watrous and Charlie Loper, to name only a handful. The Midwest has Tom Garling, Paul McKee and Tom Matta, the East Coast, John Fedchock and Brian Pastor, among others. Several of the trombonists double as world-class composers, arrangers and bandleaders who have recorded topnotch albums with their names on the marquee. Pastor's CD, Uncommon Men, is especially rewarding.
Turning to the woodwind section, altos Lanny Morgan (who recently turned seventy-nine) and Rusty Higgins are among the West Coast's finest, while Phil Woods continues to reign on the East Coast at age eighty-one. Here in New Mexico, another octogenarian, Arlen Asher, has been shining his light on Santa Fe and Albuquerque for close to sixty years. Asher, a true virtuoso, is a master of every woodwind instrument from piccolo to bass saxophone and beyond. And here in Albuquerque, we have another excellent lead alto / soloist in Glenn Kostur. Turning eastward again, drummer Sherrie Maricle's all-female big band, DIVA, boasts a pair of superb alto soloists in Erica von Kleist and Sharel Cassity, and until recently housed another one, Anat Cohen, whose resume has blossomed since she left the band to build a career of her own. Another DIVA alum, Liesl Whitaker, who is currently with the U.S. Army Blues, should have been mentioned among the best lead trumpeters (along with Brian MacDonald of the Airmen of Note), so we'll do that now.