I hardly knew what kind of surprise to expect from Germany’s Surprise Big Band, as director Peter Stöhr said in an accompanying note that “this is an amateur big band with no professionals (except me).” I am happy to report that the “surprise” was far more agreeable than anticipated. Stöhr’s companions from Haslach may be amateurs, but they play like professionals. Which isn’t that surprising, as I’ve often found German musicians to be among the world’s best when it comes to working together as an ensemble. The level of expertise here is comparable to most of our better college bands, which is quite good indeed. The improvised passages are relatively concise, and while none of the soloists is remarkable, neither do they embarrass themselves. The rhythm section is more than adequate, with drummer Marco Schwab especially sure–handed and peppery and pianist Sascha Vollmer an able soloist/accompanist. Professional or no, flutist Stöhr doesn’t dominate the proceedings, assigning himself only one solo, on Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” The band really gets down on several numbers including the old Lieber/Stoller R&B hit, “Kansas City,” Joe Zawinul’s funky “Birdland,” James Taylor’s “Steamroller,” Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and Jay Beckenstein’s “Morning Dance.” Sammy Nestico is represented by “Pressure Cooker,” while “Take the ‘A’ Train” is the band’s obligatory bow to Strayhorn/Ellington. Completing the program are Chick Corea’s picturesque Jazz standard “Spain,” Marc Taylor’s high–powered “Brass Machine” and the schmaltzy pop tune “Wind Beneath My Wings” (which the ensemble plays with perhaps more earnestness than it deserves). When all is said and done, I would happily welcome more surprises like this one every day. The Surprise Big Band is definitely worth hearing.
Track listing: Morning Dance; Spain; Take the “A” Train; Steamroller; Pressure Cooker; All Blues; Kansas City; The Wind Beneath My Wings; Birdland; Brass Machine; Bad (48:15).
Michael Benz, Markus Bohnert, Alexander Hug, Clemens Meier, Klaus Wagishauser, trumpets; Ralph Baumann, Tobias Link, alto sax; Bernd Eble, Thilo Haas, tenor sax; Andreas Keil, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Peter St