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Albert–Hobbs Big Band / Jeff Hamilton–DePaul University Jazz Ensemble / Steve Taylor Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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Dave Albert—Brian Hobbs Big Band
Love Remembered
Eidolon Records
2012

What a bold and unusual idea, opening a big-band album with a waltz performed by a trio. The Albert-Hobbs Big Band does exactly that with "For Mr. C," one of several dedications on its debut recording, Love Remembered. Once it becomes clear that the ensemble is missing in action and won't be heard from before Track 2, the change of pace works quite well, as co-leader Brian Hobbs affirms that he's not only a first-rate composer / arranger (he wrote and orchestrated all but one of the album's thirteen numbers) but a resourceful and engaging pianist as well.

As it turns out, using a trio to introduce a big-band album isn't the only aberration that sets the Albert-Hobbs band apart from most others. For one thing, almost all of the musicians (aside from the co-leaders) are Swedish; for another, only three of them (Patrik Skogh, Wojtek Goral, Staffan Finden, respectively) comprise the entire trumpet, saxophone and trombone sections. In other words, the band is "big" thanks to the modern electronic technique known as overdubbing. Pianist Hobbs and drummer Dave Albert, who have been friends since their elementary school days in North Carolina, anchor the rhythm section with bassists Jan Adefelt or Tom Beimel. Three guitarists move in and out, as do three percussionists including two more Hobbs, Jeremy and Adam.

After the opening number, the band gets down to business with Hobbs' perky "Scratch That Itch," dedicated to Josie Lee Rinker (scant information about the dedicatees is given). One of them, the late Buddy Rich, to whom the irrepressible "Juggernaut" is endorsed, needs no comment, while the playful "Monkeybone" is dedicated by Hobbs "to my boys," presumably Jeremy and Adam. As would be expected, Albert takes an extended, Rich-like solo on "Juggernaut." Hobbs' piano launches the next number, "Count Me In," which carries no dedication but was clearly written with a bandleader named Basie in mind. Albert and Hobbs co-wrote the funky "Ain't Got No Money" (featuring guitarist Andy Pfeiler), which precedes the sensuous samba "Infatuation" (crisp solos by trumpeter Skogh and guest tenor Glen Ingram) and a pair of songs that retrace their childhood roots, "Carolina" (on which vocalist Peter Getz is admirable) and "Summertime Down South," which opens as a ballad before yielding to a fast-paced midsection whose hard-edged tenor solo is by Goral, then reverting to its pastoral starting point. The ensemble wraps things up with the swaggering "Too Many Reasons" and sauntering "Take Me in Your Arms," the last smoothly embroidered by Skogh's muted trumpet.

While the particulars of fashioning the album are unknown, the end result is as sharp and seamless as any big-band session you're likely to hear. Albert and Hobbs have engineered (no pun intended) a transatlantic masterpiece, and Love Remembered is tasteful and charming from end to end.

Jeff Hamilton / DePaul University Jazz Ensemble
Time Passes On
Jazzed Media
2012

When it comes to university-level big bands, there aren't many that can keep pace with Chicago's superlative DePaul University Jazz Ensemble. And when it comes to manning a big-band drum kit, there is simply no one around who does that better than the perceptive and versatile Jeff Hamilton. Put them together, as Jazzed Media has on the new album Time Passes On, and you have a winning combination, one that is a sure bet to please almost any big-band partisan—especially when recorded in concert at Joe Segal's legendary Jazz Showcase, as these sessions were in April 2011.

Hamilton, who is the drummer on the first half-dozen of the album's ten numbers, wrote two of them: the animated "Samba de Martelo" and dreamy ballad "Time Passes On" ("Samba" was arranged by Joseph Clark, "Time" by Cormac McCarthy) and solos adroitly on "Samba," "Days of Wine and Roses," Miles Davis' propulsive " Serpent's Tooth" and the crowd-pleasing showcase for his remarkable brushwork, John Clayton's playful arrangement of "Back Home Again in Indiana." The DePaul ensemble takes it from there, radiating poise and power on McCoy Tyner's "Happy Days," the Nat Cole evergreen "Nature Boy," music director Bob Lark's snappy "Suggestions" and lead trombonist Andy Baker's well-measured "Baby Steps." Lest there be any misgivings about Hamilton's absence, his surrogates—Keith Brooks ("Happy Days," "Suggestions") and Nick Kabat ("Baby Steps," "Nature Boy")—are easily up to the task.

With or without Hamilton on board, the DePaul ensemble boast a number of impressive soloists, starting with trumpeter Marquis Hill and pianist Brad Macdonald on the well-worn opener, Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings," and continuing through alto Billy Wolfe ("Samba de Martelo"), Hill again, this time on flugel ("Time Passes On"), Wolfe again ("Days of Wine and Roses"), Baker and soprano Corbin Andrick ("Serpent's Tooth"), guitarist Kevin Brown and tenor Rocky Yera ("Happy Days"), Macdonald and Baker ("Baby Steps"), Yera and Hill ("Suggestions"). Chuck Parrish (who arranged "Nature Boy" in waltz time) introduces that number on muted trumpet, presaging effective ad libs by vibraphonist Justin Thomas and drummer Kabat. "Indiana," with Hamilton in the driver's seat, is clearly a high spot, as are the buoyant "Samba de Martelo," Wolfe's seductive arrangement of "Wine and Roses," Thomas Matta's electrifying version of "Serpent's Tooth" and Lark's charming "Suggestions," smartly arranged by Clark.

As a unit, Lark and the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble have been at the top of their game for nearly two decades, during which time they have recorded with a number of celebrated artists from Phil Woods, Clark Terry and Louie Bellson to Bob Brookmeyer, Tom Harrell, Frank Wess and Jim McNeely. Time Passes On is the latest in an unbroken chain of exemplary albums, made all the more delightful by the imposing presence of the remarkable drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Steve Taylor Big Band eXpLoSiOn
Live in London
i2i Music
2012

To accentuate the positive, Steve Taylor Big Band is a first-rate drummer from the Buddy Rich / Louie Bellson school with a London-based big band to match. Having said that, Taylor's debut album, Live in London, while more often than not robust and bracing, is hampered to some extent by the balance problems that plague many a live performance, a burden that is underscored by the intensity of every number in the high-octane concert (an occasional change of pace from frenzied to laid-back would have been welcome). The session suffers as well from occasional "audience participation" in the form of obtrusive chatter, which is especially annoying on Sammy Nestico's "Wind Machine" and Joe Zawinul's "Birdland." Also, there's no logical reason why the recording engineer should have missed (as he did) the first few notes of "Wind Machine."

Returning to the positive, Taylor shows his mettle throughout, especially while sitting in for Rich (a tough act for anyone to follow) on Bill Reddie's colorful arrangement of the "West Side Story" medley, first performed by Buddy on the album Swingin' New Big Band in 1966. That's one of the highlights, as are "Wind Machine," Denis DiBlasio's "Cajun Cooking" and a pair of Gordon Goodwin originals, "Count Bubba" and "Samba del Gringo." Singer Josie Frater's voice is heard on "Gringo," as it is on "Ode to Billie Joe" and Mike Tomaro's "Conspiracy Theory," but she "sings" (lyrics) only on "Apron Strings," Bob Mintzer's "TV Blues" and the standard "Too Close for Comfort" (on which staying on key presents a challenge, one she struggles to manage). "TV Blues" seems to be an "encore" spliced in to follow the more customary finale, "West Side Story," after which Taylor and the band say their goodbyes (or it may have been recorded earlier in the program and saved for last). Alas, the song's clever lyrics are rendered almost unintelligible by the recording flaws and noise level.

As it true of most big bands, Taylor has a number of respectable soloists, starting with tenor saxophonist Richard Sheppard on "Conspiracy Theory" and "Wind Machine" and including reedmen Vasilis Xenopoulos, Dan Faulkner and Lucas Dodd; trumpeters Tom Walsh and Ed Benstead, trombonist Ben Greenslade-Stanton, pianist Jamie Salisbury and bassist Rob Statham. Taylor's solos, on "Sambe del Gringo," "Cajun Cooking," "Ode to Billie Jo" and "West Side Story," are clean and assertive, and he drives the ensemble with power to spare. In sum, a dandy concert with ample exuberance that might have been even more impressive in a studio.

Dave Rivello Ensemble
Facing the Mirror
Allora Records
2012

Among the composers and arrangers with whom Dave Rivello has interacted, the late Bob Brookmeyer (it seems strange to be writing that), who wrote the liner notes for Rivello's debut album, Facing the Mirror, was in many ways the most influential. Their association began in 1996 when Rivello started copying music for Brookmeyer; later, he became Brookmeyer's student, following in the footsteps of Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely and others. To weigh that influence, simply listen to the opening number, "One by One by One," which could have been written by Brookmeyer himself. Much the same is true throughout the album, as Rivello, who now teaches at his alma mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, applies the lessons learned from his friend and mentor to produce a series of compositions and arrangements that exemplify the sort of dexterity and care that Brookmeyer always bestowed on the music he loved.

To perform his music, Rivello has enlisted a dozen blue-chip sidemen from the Rochester area (perhaps including some of his colleagues at the Eastman school) who have no problem making it sound bright and agreeable. Even though Rivello is his own man, echoes of the Brookmeyer approach to big-band writing can be heard on every track, and that's a good thing. Rivello learned his lessons well, and has produced an album that voices his own perspective as it pays tribute to a greatly admired teacher. Also present, albeit less conspicuous, are techniques learned by Rivello from other esteemed maestros including McNeely, Bill Holman, Manny Albam, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Belden and Thad Jones, among others. Rivello has taken the best that each of them has to offer and blended it to shape his own singular voice.

That is nowhere more apparent than on the closing "Chorale," a through-composed piece whose emotive passages for reeds and brass induce a tangible mood of serenity and reverence. Before that, Rivello displays a Brookmeyer-like penchant for nebulous yet somehow descriptive names: "(Of) Time and Time Past," "Stealing Space," "Dancing in Circles," "Sometime," "Beyond the Fall," "The Path of Innocence." Each one is well-written, ably performed by the ensemble, and embodies solos that may not be memorable but are always in keeping with the nature and purpose of the theme at hand. Trumpeter Eli Asher and pianist Red Wierenga share the spotlight on "One by One by One," followed by trumpeter Mike Kaupa ("Time and Time Past"), tenor Jose Encarnacion ("Stealing Space"), bassist Malcolm Kirby Jr. and drummer Ted Poor ("Dancing in Circles"), Kaupa again ("Sometime"), Poor and soprano Matt Pivec ("Beyond the Fall"), Wierenga and Encarnacion ("The Path of Innocence").

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