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Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass: Big Band Christmas

Jack Bowers By

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Having recorded two recent theme–oriented albums for Concord Jazz ( Play the Jazz Classics, Even Canadians Get the Blues ) Rob McConnell and his valorous Boss Brass confront the definitive musical “theme” in a Big Band Christmas. The carols and other seasonal offerings, all expertly arranged by McConnell, are wonderfully recited by an ensemble that is known and respected as much for its tastefulness as for its power and precision. As Rob says in the liner notes, “My approach to all the carols (probably to music in general) is quite traditional. I don’t see the value in Jazzing up some of this music, although I have taken some liberties harmonically which I hope is okay.” It’s okay with us, Rob. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing with the Boss Brass for more than three decades. It seems to be working. The carols include “Away in a Manger” (whose melody differs slightly from the one most Americans are used to hearing; it’s the one McConnell sang in church as a young man) and medleys consisting of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”/“Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”/“Joy to the World.” The more recent songs are given a Jazzier treatment, with peerless flugel Guido Basso featured on “The Christmas Waltz” and Johnny Mandel’s “Christmas Love Song.” McConnell’s valve trombone is heard only on Mel Tormé/Bob Wells’ “Christmas Song” (with pianist Dave Restivo also soloing). Tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, subbing for mainstay Rick Wilkins, who was in Europe and missed his first recording with the Boss Brass in 27 years, solos with trumpeter Kevin Turcotte on the opening medley (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”). Dave Dunlop, who succeeded the great Arnie Chycoski in the lead trumpet chair an album ago, plays beautifully on “Silver Bells”/“In the Bleak Mid–Winter,” as does veteran guitarist Ed Bickert (who is heard again with alto John Johnson on “Midnight Clear”/“Silent Night”). Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” ordinarily played as a ballad, is given an assertive Latin overlay with a trace of "Tico Tico," a knotty soli for brass, and peppery solos by Restivo, alto Moe Koffman and trumpeter Steve McDade. LaBarbera returns (on soprano) with tenor Alex Dean on "My Favorite Things," while lead trombonist Alastair Kay is showcased on "Bethlehem"/"Joy to the World" to close another marvelous session by the peerless Boss Brass, which at Christmas or any other time of year affirms its reputation as one of the world's most colorful and accomplished big bands.Track listing: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/I’ll Be Home for Christmas; Silver Bells/In the Bleak Mid–Winter; White Christmas/Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland; Away in a Manger; The Christmas Waltz; The Christmas Song; What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/Silent Night; My Favorite Things; A Christmas Love Song; O Little Town of Bethlehem/Joy to the World (59:46).

Track Listing: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/I

Personnel: Rob McConnell- valve trombone; Moe Koffman- piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax; John Johnson- flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax; Alex Dean- flute, clarinet, tenor sax; Pat LaBarbera- flute, clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax; Bob Leonard- flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax; Dave Dunlop, Steve McDade, John MacLeod, Guido Basso, Kevin Turcotte- trumpet, flugelhorn; Alastair Kay; Bob Livingston; Jerry Johnson- trombone; Ernie Pattison- bass trombone; James MacDonald; Judy Kay- French horn; David Restivo- piano; Ed Bickert- guitar; Jim Vivian- bass; Ted Warren- drums; Brian Leonard- percussion.

Title: Big Band Christmas | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Concord Music Group

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