The Jill Townsend Big Band: Tales from the Sea (2004)

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This is what makes reviewing such an adventure. Just when one thinks he may have heard it all, a new big band comes out of nowhere—well, out of Vancouver, British Columbia, actually—to prove that he hasn’t, that there’s always something new under the sun, and that there’s almost nothing more rewarding than the thrill of discovering a marvelous new Jazz ensemble whose artistry and resourcefulness can best be described as breathtaking. The band in question is led by composer/arranger Jill Townsend whose debut album, Tales from the Sea, is irresistibly fresh and charming from beginning to end.

The band itself is impressive, but no more so than the glistening charts by Townsend and her husband, guitarist Bill Coon, who also crafted two delightfully engaging melodies, “The Gift” and “From a Whisper to a Roar.” The centerpiece is Townsend’s picturesque suite, Tales from the Sea, whose three exhilarating movements—Cape John,” “Waltz of the Jellyfish,” “Amet Island”—are dedicated to her birthplace, Nova Scotia.

Townsend also arranged alto saxophonist Campbell Ryga’s lissome ballad showcase, “Old Folks,” and one of the more improbable themes for a big-band Jazz treatment, Chauncey Olcott’s “My Wild Irish Rose” (which is exquisite, as are the solos by Coon and flugel Derry Byrne). Coon arranged guitarist Jim Hall’s perky Caribbean-influenced “Street Dance,” and he and Townsend orchestrated Grant Green’s atmospheric “Blues in Maude’s Flat.”

One can sense from the opening measures of “The Gift” that Townsend’s ensemble, and the album as a whole, are something special, as Coon cleverly uses trombone choir, muted trumpets and lovely woodwind voicings to pave the way for persuasive solos by tenor Ross Taggart, trumpeter Brad Turner, drummer Dave Robbins and an alluring coda by Ryga, this time on soprano. “Whisper” is an old-fashioned barn-burner with trenchant remarks by Turner (muted), Taggart, Coon and Robbins.

Soloists on Tales from the Sea are trombonist Rod Murray (“Cape John,” which is connected to the second movement by the sound of a real wave), Ryga, Coon and bassist Andre Lachine (“Jellyfish”), Turner, Robbins, tenor Mike Allen and trombonist Jeremy Berkman (“Amet Island”). Coon shares the spotlight with trombonist Dennis Esson on “Street Dance,” with alto Jack Stafford on “Maude’s Flat.” Like the ensemble, the soloists are razor-sharp and letter-perfect.

The more perceptive reader may have guessed by now that my response to Tales from the Sea was rather favorable, and that is true. I believe the hip phrase today is “blown away” (or was that yesterday?). Well, no matter how one chooses to say it, Jill Townsend has rigged a mind-blowing big band, and her debut album is, like, really groovy (oops! there I go, dating myself again). Take a tip from the old man—run, do not walk. You’ll be totally caved. (Okay, I made that one up, but hey, it‘s not bad.)

Track Listing: The Gift; Old Folks; From a Whisper to a Roar; Tales from the Sea (Cape John / Waltz of the Jellyfish / Amet Island); My Wild Irish Rose; Street Dance; Blues in Maude

Personnel: Jill Townsend, composer, arranger, conductor; Campbell Ryga, alto, soprano sax; Jack Stafford, alto sax, flute, clarinet; Ross Taggart, tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Mike Allen, tenor sax; Chris Startup, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Paul Baron, Derry Byrne, Brad Turner, Robin Shier, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dennis Esson, Rod Murray, Jeremy Berkman, trombone; Neil Nicholson, bass trombone; Bill Coon, guitar; Andre Lachance, bass; Dave Robbins, drums.

Style: Big Band


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