Up From The Skies; Old School: New Lessons

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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
Up From The Skies: Music of Jim McNeely
PlanetArts
2006

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (VJO) is a national treasure. The venerable institution, which began its existence under the co-leadership of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, celebrates its 40th anniversary of Monday nights at the Village Vanguard this year. The organization continues to develop, expanding its voluminous repertoire with this release of new music by its composer in residence, pianist Jim McNeely.

McNeely's arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix title track that opens the disc clearly demonstrates his ability to preserve the band's distinctive personality while exploring fresh sounds. He maintains the cool melodicism of the rock classic, but broadens its harmonic landscape, utilizing some surprising progressions apropos to the composer's originality, while creating a soundscape suitable for straight-ahead blowing by trombonist Jason Jackson and tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama. An exciting episodic feature for drummer John Riley, "The Life of Riley, follows with captivating tight ensemble work by the horn sections and an incendiary improvisation by Luis Bonilla on trombone.

The beautiful "In The Moment showcases the composer's introspective piano and Scott Wendholt's affecting flugelhorn. McNeely's "Don't Even Ask! is a somewhat more conventional swinger spotlighting Billy Drewes' expressive soprano sax, along with Dennis Irwin's bass and the composer's piano. The suite "One Question, Three Answers is a triptych with each segment conceived as a showcase for a pair of soloists.

The intricate opener, "Almost Always, features the orchestra's luscious low end, with John Mosca and Gary Smulyan, on trombone and baritone respectively, demonstrating their remarkable range of expression. The pretty middle section, "Hardly Ever, serves as a vehicle for Greg Gisbert's moving flugelhorn and Dick Oatts' emotional alto. The powerful third part, "You Tell Me, is a tour-de-force on which tenor saxophonists Rich Perry and Ralph Lalama engage in a not-so-old-fashioned tenor battle. The date's stirring conclusion, "We Will Not Be Silenced, features a plaintive Perry and an impassioned Smulyan, properly portraying the piece's development from hymn to protest song.

Bob Mintzer Big Band
Old School: New Lessons
MCG Jazz
2006

Bob Mintzer is an alumnus of the VJO, and the composer/arranger's marvelous musical palette reveals his roots in the Jones-Lewis conglomerate. On Old School: New Lessons he acknowledges the big band tradition while forging ahead into new territory.

The opener, "Not Quite Yet, accomplishes the former with an orchestration that features pianist Phil Markowitz and the leader's tenor sax, while the second track, "Mofongo, attempts the latter with a guest appearance by the Yellowjackets. Although Russ Ferrante's electronic keyboards seem slightly out of place, his acoustic piano sections more appropriate for this Afro-Cuban arrangement and the group's other cameo on the attractive "Mosaic.

Vocalist Kurt Elling's two features similarly pursue the disc's mandate, with a classic interpretation of "My One and Only Love and a contemporary reading of his own lyric to Coltrane's "Resolution. There's plenty of straight-ahead swinging on "Runferyerlife and some New Orleans funkiness on "Majestic March. Mintzer and Terell Stafford share the spotlight on the intriguing "Black Sand, and the date's final track, "Go Go, brings it all together, mixing things up with Bob Malach and Markowitz soloing over staccato ensemble sections and John Riley's soulful backbeat.


Tracks and Personnel

Up From The Skies

Tracks: Up From The Skies; The Life of Riley; In This Moment; Don't Even Ask!; Suite: One Question, Three Answers - Almost Always, Hardly Ever, You Tell Me; We Will Not Be Silenced.

Personnel: Nich Marchione, Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Scott Wendholt: trumpets, flugelhorns; John Mosca, Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson: trombones; Dougls Purviance: bass trombone; Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph Lalama, Gary Smulyan: saxophones, clarinets, flutes; Jim McNeely: piano; Dennis Irwin: bass; John Riley: drums.

Old School: New Lessons

Tracks: Not Quite Yet; Mofongo; My One and Only Love; Runferyerlife; Mosaic; Resolution; March Majestic; Black Sand; Go Go.

Personnel: Bob Mintzer, Pete Yellin, Lawrence Feldman, Bob Malch, Scott Robinson: saxophones, clarinets, flutes; Bob Millikan, Scott Wendholt, Terell Stafford, Frank Greene: trumpets; Michael Davis, Jason Jackson, Larry Farrell: trombones; David Taylor: bass trombone; Phil Markowitz; piano; Jay Anderson: bass; John Riley: drums. Special guests - Kurt Elling: vocals; The Yellowjackets - Bob Mintzer: tenor saxophone; Russell Ferrante: piano, synthesizers; Jimmy Haslip: bass guitar; Marcus Baylor: drums.


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