There is a "young man with a horn" in Tacoma, WA, named Rich Wetzel, who has taken on a millennial mission to re-create, preserve and in some instances update the big band excitement of that golden age called the Swing Era. Wetzel, far from unknown, is an established Holton-Leblanc trumpet clinician. And his dedication to the past has attracted musicians from the Puget Sound area who share his vision and admire his untiring efforts to acquire charts from the libraries of Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington...just about every big band except John Philip Sousa.
Wetzel whose debut album was a 2-CD set, "Live at Jazzbones," a club in Tacoma decided to also record his second record live, at a bigger venue, the Rialto Theater (home of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra), then invite renowned trumpeter Wayne Bergeron to headline the event! How many leaders would defer to a better-known gladiator in such circumstances? That's tantamount to Tacoma challenging Seattle to an infrastructure duel!
No duel developed the night of the concert in May, 2000; more like a duet. I was at that exciting affair, expecting a cutting session, but the two showed great mutual respect plus very red faces from screeching at each other while blowing their hearts out. Inevitably they succeeded in goosing the band to play its collective heart out. Talk about goosingdrummer Aaron Hennings did a memorable job of propelling the 19-piece band, plus the two trumpeers out front, as well as filling gaps with intelligence and swagger.
Swagger is the key word in describing Bergeron's performance. No wonder he's so in demand in L.A. studios. His approach to "St. Louis Blues" is positively sensuous; he evokes a different kind of sensuality in "Tell Your Story," embracing it in dark, warm, often lonely flugelhorn tones; and he brings out the best in Wetzel on "Cruisn' For A Bluesin'," as both reach heights only canines can appreciate. Wetzel has his own moments to shine on "MacArthur Park," and "La Virgen de la Macarena."
Among sectional highlights: the full-bodied, Kentonesque trombones on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams;" the trumpet section on "St. Louis Blues;" and the humorously swinging sax solo on "Cruisin', anchored by the only baritonist who boasts trademark dimples, Brooke Farnsworth. As for the full band, they tackled some fiendishly difficult charts "La Virgen," "MacArthur Park," and that Kenton blockbuster, "Malaguena," and their concerted efforts deserve the highest praise.
Kudos for other solo statements by trombonist Jim Stevens, heard in "Bon Homme Richard;" guitarist Mason Hargrove on "Cruisin';" and above all, altoist and future hall of famer, Cliff Colon. His cadenza to "Polka Dots" turned into a master class in technique that all sax students should study and analyze.
Poor miking somewhat obscures many other solos worthy of credit. Falling victim to the unbalanced sound: intense solos by tenor players Kareem Kandi and Terry Ward, baritonist Farnsworth and at times even Colon. As for blending the full band, Dale Shriver's walking bass line and Cynthia Hughen's comping often go unheard. However, the latter's montunas come through loud and clear, igniting the Latin excitement of percussionist Mike Slivka.
The sonic flaws of this recording in no way detract from the overall excitement generated by the Groovin' Higher Jazz Orchestra. This was their night to take flight, and they went into orbit.
Personnel: Wayne Bergeron, Rich Wetzel, Greg Lyons, Randy Heyd, Kevin England,
Parrish Sellers, Ken Peters, trumpets; Eric Stevens, Jamie Paulson,
Melissa Paulson, Jim Stevens, trombones; Cliff Colon, Chris Olson,
Kareem Kandi, Terry Ward, Brooke Farnsworth, saxes; Cynthia
Hughen,piano; Mason Hargrove, guitar; Dale Shriver, bass; Aaron
Hennings, drums; Mike Slivka, auxiliary percussion.