Few big bands anywhere have a more far-reaching or well-deserved reputation for excellence than Germany’s SWR Big Band, which began life in the early ’50s as Erwin Lehn and his Southern Radio Dance Orchestra. When Lehn stepped aside in 1991 after forty years at the helm, the Stuttgart-based band didn’t miss a beat, swinging resiliently onward first as the SDR Big Band and later the SWR. It was in 1992, barely a year after Lehn’s departure, that composer/arranger/bandleader/valve trombonist extraordinaire Rob McConnell first recorded with the band (known then as SDR), and now, a decade later, he’s back, leading the ensemble through a dozen of his fabulous arrangements on an album that one is compelled to describe as spectacular in every respect.
True, not much here is new (most of these charts have been introduced on various albums by McConnell’s sorely-missed Boss Brass), but to hear them again, played so marvelously by this superlative band, is almost as exhilarating as hearing them for the first time. Indeed, the album’s subtitle is “Boss Brass Revisited,” which is never a bad idea, especially as McConnell had to disband the Brass in ‘96 and replace it with a smaller but no less charismatic group, the Rob McConnell Tentet.
McConnell did write one new chart for the occasion, “So Very Rob,” a typically stylish medium tempo essay that builds in intensity behind roaring brass and mellow French horns before completing a smooth landing. A second original, the breezy “Sixth Sense,” is credited to the leader but appeared on the album Even Canadians Get the Blues with the composer acknowledged (by McConnell in the liner notes) as pianist Ron Johnston.
As is the case in most world-class big bands, the SWR’s sideman are not only flawless section players but admirable soloists as well. There are captivating features for alto saxophonist Axel Kühn (“Autumn in New York”) and tenor Andreas Maile (“What Am I Here For”), a scorching up-tempo romp (“Crazy Rhythm”) for agile trombonists Ian Cumming and Marc Godfroid, and ample room for such resourceful ad libbers as alto Klaus Graf, trumpeters Karl Farrent and Klaus Reichstaller, tenor Jörg Kaufman, pianist Klaus Wagenleiter, bassist Decebal Badila and guitarist Klaus-Peter Schöpfer. McConnell solos twice, on “Sixth Sense” and “A Child Is Born/Our Waltz,” and one need only note that he is playing as well as ever. Last but by no means least, the rhythm section (Wagenleiter, Schöpfer, Badila, drummer Holger Nell) is razor-sharp and persuasive throughout.
This is a near-perfect gem of an album with state-of-the-art sound comprising 79 minutes of contemporary big band jazz that is never less than scintillating.
Personnel: Rob McConnell, composer, arranger, valve trombone; Felice Civitareale, Wim Both, Claus Reichstaller, Karl Farrent, Rudolf Reindl, trumpet, flugelhorn; Klaus Graf, Axel K