Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
The Way: The Music of Slide Hampton
Planet Arts Recordings
As Mitchell Seidel points out in his liner notes to The Way, New York has grown accustomed to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s presence at the Village Vanguard every Monday night for the past 38 years. But this continuity has neither made the band nor it’s repertoire the least bit stale or hackneyed. It has relied on a formula of sorts. This formula consists of a constant flow of new music or often radical arrangements of standard jazz repertory. In keeping the Thad Jones legacy, the music is consistently harmonically and rhythmically stimulating. It not only challenges the musicians technically but it challenges audiences to be hip to what it is doing. It is, has been, and hopefully will continue to be a band that takes chances in order to advance the accepted sound of big band music in an ever-changing modern musical landscape.
Certainly the band has its favorites, (which I have personally heard it play time and again) including many of Jones’ classics and lesser known titles such as “Little Man, You’ve Had a Big Day,” and “Quiet Lady,” but there is more music in the band’s book than most of us can begin to imagine.
In its latest recorded incarnation, The Way: The Music of Slide Hampton, the VJO has enlisted the writing skills of Locksley ‘Slide’ Hampton, the legendary trombonist-composer-arranger. What resulted is a stunning album of tunes penned by Hampton with a suite for the VJO that is a pastiche of four major composer-arrangers in the history of jazz. The suite plus four other originals show Hampton’s facility in adapting himself and all the techniques of writing for a big band to writing for a big band that has tremendous dynamic control, technical prowess and most importantly its own signature sound.
The album opens with a majestic layering of bell tones building up to a dynamic climax quickly devolving from a symphonic sound to a briskly swinging vehicle for lead altoist Dick Oatts, lead trombonist and musical director John Mosca, and pianist Jim McNeely to blow on. “You Asked for It” is followed by a four-part suite entitled “Inspiration: Suite for Jazz Orchestra.” Many (including myself) got a sneak peek of this work at the VJO’s memorable performance this past January in New York at the IAJE Convention. In parentheses, it says “Inspired by John Coltrane.” A closer listen will bring smiles to the faces of musicians and fans alike as they recognize the suite follows the chord changes of Trane’s seminal “Giant Steps.”
Nods go appropriately to the best in the business of composition and arranging: Thad Jones (fittingly), Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, and Tadd Dameron. If for nothing else, Hampton’s suite serves as the perfect blowing vehicle for the band’s numerous distinctive soloists.
Within the saxophone section alone we hear from each man. The hard-swinging hard bop tenor of Ralph Lalama on “Part I: One For Thad” contrasts sharply to the Bohemian and lackadaisical approach of tenorist Rich Perry who is perennially swingin’ behind the beat on “Part II: Strayhorn.” We also hear stark contrast between introspective altoist Billy Drewes (who plays some killer flute on “Part II: Strayhorn”) and the always-creative and incomparable harmonic weaving of Dick Oatts, whose articulation is in a class of its own. His heavily swinging style is also quite behind the beat and should make saxophonists everywhere want to head straight to the woodshed. As always baritonist Gary Smulyan is at the top of his game as usual contributing only one solo on “Part IV: Dameron,” which was the movement showcased at IAJE. The band’s other star soloist is the inimitable Scott Wendholt who is probably the busiest session trumpeter in New York. Wendholt plays with a slew of other big bands in town including the excellent Gotham Jazz Orchestra and works in small group settings as well.
I personally find it troubling that of a band comprised of all cats who can play, while the whole saxophone, trombone, and rhythm sections solo at one time or another, Wendholt is the only trumpeter to ever solo both on the album and live (this has been the case whenever I have seen the band in the past). I could understand it if the lead player wants to save his chops, but being in this group should warrant solo statements from every member of the band at some point. And though Oatts, Perry, Smulyan and McNeely are all excellent soloists, there should be more of an opportunity for the other band members to play out.
To continue on this rant, my biggest pet peeve with this band is the length of time this “herd” has gone without a personnel change. Additionally, the band is predominantly white. Just as Lincoln Center has been pressed to do, the VJO should consider having a bit more diversity within its ranks. There are certainly plenty of excellent players out there. And yes many of them can read too! There should also be a better balance of ages in the group representing the new generation of players and styles. Thad and Mel introduced so many players through this aggregation. The only young player in the band to my knowledge is trombonist Luis Bonilla. But then again these cats need all the work they can get. Thus my rant doesn’t provide any plausible solution for the dearth of work out there.
On the whole, though, the VJO retains its signature style with The Way. Combining the masterful writing of Hampton with first-rate meticulousness as a band, they have pulled off yet another effort worthy of a Grammy nod. Let’s hope they win it this year. We all know they deserve it.
Visit the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra on the web.
Tracks: 1. You Asked For It 8:39 INSPIRATION - Suite for Jazz Orchestra (Inspired by John Coltrane) 2. Part l: One For Thad 6:02 3. Part ll: Strayhorn 5:18 4. Part lll: Gil 7:05 5. Part lV: Dameron 9:00 6. Past Present & Future 9:55 7. The Way 7:30 8. Frame for The Blues 9:20.
Personnel: Trumpets: Earl Gardner (Lead), Joe Mosello, Glenn Drewes, Scott Wendholt, Trombones: John Mosca (Lead), Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Douglas Purviance (bass trombone) Reeds: Dick Oatts (Lead alto and soprano saxophones, flute), Billy Drewes (alto and soprano saxophones, flute, bass clarinet), Rich Perry (Tenor saxophone, flute), Ralph Lalama (Tenor saxophone, clarinet), Gary Smulyan (Baritone saxophone, bass clarinet) Rhythm Section: Jim McNeely-piano, John Riley-drums, Dennis Irwin-bass Additional Trumpet/Flugelhorn parts played by Frank Greene