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The Joe Elefante Big Band: Vanity Fair (2005)

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How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Pianist/composer Joe Elefante's New York City-based big band has been quite favorably received by the local media, and now we can hear why—well-built ensemble, impressive soloists, splendid arrangements by Elefante, who assembled all the charts on the band's debut album, Vanity Fair, and wrote everything save Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips."

"Lips," usually played as a ballad, is an arresting example of Elefante's innovative approach, as the tempo is accelerated and the familiar melody bracketed by free-form exchanges among trumpeter Dave Ballou, tenor Walt Weiskopf, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Andy Watson. Elefante then has some "Fun with Glass," standing the Tommy Dorsey theme "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" on its ear, and salutes "Valentine's Day" with a cleverly camouflaged version of the Rodgers and Hart classic, "My Funny Valentine" (I hope I'm right about the last two; that's what they sounded like to me).

Elefante and the band can swing hard too, shaking the rafters on "Copy Cat" and "Phoney Mahoney," flexing their muscles on "Eider/Tale" and "D. n' T.," and adding a funky beat on the album's "bonus" track, "Danger," one of two numbers on which Elefante sings (the other is "I Cry"). Singing seems to bring out the rocker in Elefante, while his lyrics remind me of something Stevie Wonder or Neil Diamond might have written.

Alto Andy Fusco is showcased on the sensuous ballad "Quiet Dream," tenors Weiskopf and Gary Keller on "D. 'n T." Besides those already noted, there are persuasive comments along the way by Elefante, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, baritone Scott Robinson, trombonist John Mosca and guitarist Ken Sebesky. The opener, "Vanity Fair," uses a shuffling groove to usher in bracing solos by Keller, Magnarelli, Mosca and Watson.

Now that we know what all the fuss is about, we'd suggest that you find out for yourself. Elefante has put together a world-class ensemble, loaded with top-notch players, and given them high-grade music to perform. The album they've produced lives up to the outpouring of praise that preceded it.

Track Listing: Vanity Fair; Elder / Tale; I Cry; Quiet Dream; The Touch of Your Lips; Fun with Glass; D. 'n T.; Copy Cat; Valentine's Day; Phoney Mahoney; Danger (70:45).

Personnel: Joe Elefante, conductor, piano, Fender Rhodes, vocals; Dave Ballou, Craig Johnson, Don Downs, Glenn Drewes, Joe Magnarelli, trumpet; Dave D'Angleo, alto, soprano sax, flute; Andy Fusco, alto sax; Walt Weiskopf, tenor, soprano sax; Gary Keller, tenor sax, clarinet; Scott Robinson, baritone sax, bass clarinet; John Mosca, Pete McGuinness, Jason Jackson, trombone; Doug Purviance, bass trombone; Ken Sebesky, guitar; Dennis Irwin, bass; Andy Watson, drums. On Danger only -- Elefante, Fender Rhodes, vocal; Bruce Williams, Craig Yaremko, Anthony Nelson, Dave Noland, Mike Brown, reeds; Alan Quinn, Nathan Eklund, Rich Polotchek, Freddy Hendrix, trumpet; Erick Storckman, Marshall Gilkes, Laurence Ross, Dennis Argul, trombone; Matt, McDonald, guitar; Mike Todd, bass; Joe DeVico, drums.

Style: Big Band


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