An aptly named album, as the mellow sounds of the Great River Big Band caress one’s senses like a warm breeze flowing softly from its home base in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The twenty–eight–year–old GRBB’s mission, according to the liner notes, is “to preserve and forward the big–band Jazz idiom through live performances for people of all ages and diverse backgrounds.” In concerts and at festivals, the band has played with such renowned Jazz artists as Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Kurt Elling, Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Marshal Royal and many others. And in the recording studio, it has produced this tasteful album of popular standards coupled with Jazz compositions by Ernie Wilkins (“Basie’s Back in Town”), trumpeter Scott Jensen (“Chico’s Chase”), Sammy Nestico (“A Warm Breeze”) and a blistering version of Tchaikovsky’s timeless “Nutcracker Suite.” The album’s four vocals are divided equally between Cathy Reitz (“Willow Weep for Me,” “I Just Found Out About Love”) and drummer Tim Henke (“You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” “Makin’ Whoopee”), each of whom is best described as capable — and I wonder if Henke is playing drums while he’s singing? If so, that’s quite a balancing act. The ensemble plays with admirable poise, power and precision (the trombones are especially assertive “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) and boasts a number of dependable soloists who are ready for action when the opportunity presents itself, as it does for pianist Chris Frye, leader Greg Balfany (on flute) and tenors Jeff Erickson and Charles Schreader III (“Basie’s Back in Town”); Frye, Jensen, Erickson and trombonist Brendan Hogan (“Warm Breeze”); Frye, Henke, Balfany (on soprano) and trumpeter David Cooper (“Chico’s Chase”). Balfany is featured (on alto) on Gordon Jenkins’ ballad, “This Is All I Ask,” Frye on another lovely ballad, “For All We Know.” While the Jazz–oriented selections show the ensemble in top form, the album’s highlight is the colorful “Nutcracker,” on which everyone plays with remarkable boldness and vigor. A captivating maiden voyage for the notably seaworthy Great River Big Band.
Contact: Great River Big Band, Greg Balfany, director, Music Department, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, La Crosse, WI 54601.