Critics Note. Tolvan Big Band: Plays the Music of Helge Albin and Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Purple were previously reviewed by AAJ 's Big Band aficionado, Jack Bowers in the January and February 1999 issues of All About Jazz, respectively. Additionally, Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Purple was reviewed by Mark Corroto in the March Issue of AAJ.
Large Ensemble Jazz from Naxos. Naxos Jazz began its survey of the state of big band jazz with the release of the UMO Jazz Orchestra (Naxos Jazz 86010-2), previously reviewed by this critic in the July 1998 issue of All About Jazz. Naxos Jazz has already proven it self competent in providing the proper sonic background in its small combo releases and this release proved that the same attention to sound, engineering, and recording quality had be afforded this first big band release. The UMO Jazz Orchestra's ingenious arrangements were beautifully framed by the great Naxos sound.
This same attention to detail was applied to the two most recent big band outings by the label, Tolvan Big Band: Plays the Music of Helge Albin (Naxos Jazz 86025-2) and Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Purple (Naxos Jazz 86030-2). First and foremost, big band recordings should be bright and in your face when upbeat and light as a kiss when slow ballads.
Tolvan Big Band. The Tolvan Big Band is lead by multi-wind player Helge Albin. Albin is also responsible for all of the compositions and arrangements performed on this disc. Past Tolvan releases include Split Vision (DRLP 44, 1982) and Montreaux and More (DRLP 61, 1983) on Dragon and Colours (PSCD 47, 1989) on Phono Suecia.
Albin's writing is bright and crisp, full of invention. He proves himself an excellent soloist on the disc opener, "The Game" along with trumpeter Peter Asplund and drummer Lennart Gruvstedt, and on "One Minute for Myself" and "Nice and Easy". But to focus in on one aspect of this music, the drumming and percussion takes the cake. Drums: they are a highlight of these compositions. Percussion performs on an equal footing with all other instruments rather than suffering beneath the burden of providing rhythm. Albin spreads the responsibility of rhythm evenly to all performers and instruments. This provides for some shimmering, luminescent music, halogen brilliant. Lennart Gruvstedt plays with a muscular authority, never overpowering the orchestra and always providing the perfect swing.
Apples and The Love of Three Oranges. Where Helge Albin and Tolvan are melodic and infectious, Ken Schaphorst is thoughtful and brooding. An analogy would be the comparison of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet with that of Prokofiev's. Both are masterpieces that reflect vastly different visions in composition and orchestration from the mirror of the same story. Before moving to academia in Wisconsin, Schaphorst was a very active member of the Boston music scene. Previous big band releases include After Blue (Accurate Jazz 4202-2, 1992), When the Moon Jumps (Accurate Jazz 4203-2, 1994), Making Lunch (Accurate Jazz 4201-2, 1994), and Over the Rainbow: The Music of Harold Arlen (Accurate Jazz 4204-2, 1997).
Schaphorst’s charts are cerebral platforms for soloists. Like Ellington, but not as effectively, he writes for specific soloists in mind. This is no better illustrated than in the disc highlight and flawed giant, “Blues Almighty”. This piece allows an organ-guitar duo (John Medeski/ Brad Shepik) to extend the language of Jimmy Smith/Kenny Burrell well into the twenty-first century. “Uprising” provides Donny McCaslin a comfortable stage on which to perform his virile tenor. The impeccable Uri Caine is superb throughout on piano, iconoclastic to the last (check out his solo on the title cut). Trumpeter expresses a tight, well-constructed solo out of the dense orchestration of Bats.
Other Criticism. I have read a good deal of criticism of Schaphorst's charts being to confining and thereby not possessing enough swing. I find his charts frustrating on this album, but like a marginal movie that contains a sublime performance ( Kiss of the Spider Woman comes to my mind), Purple provides enough thrills and chills from the soloist to make it worth purchasing, especially for the most affordable Naxos price.Tolvan Big Band