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Who wants to take on the task of turning 17 individual musicians into a jazz big band? Very few people would attempt it, and fewer would succeed. Guitarist Jamie Begian did it in 1998 and the Jamie Begian Big Band now celebrates its 12th year with the release of its second album, Big Fat Grin. Begian not only leads the band, he wrote and arranged the tunes, and produced the album. That's a lot of responsibility, but the success of this album will surely make it feel worthwhile.
"Funky Coffee" opens the album, its initial phrases bearing a passing resemblance to the theme tune from the original film version of Casino Royale (1967). It certainly is funky, but in a refined, smooth fashion that makes the most of the horn section's silky ensemble playing, and the bass and drums of Dave Ambrosio and Peter Retzlaff. As with all of the tunes, Begian builds in space for two or three solos and the playersMarc McDonald on alto, Tom Goehring on trumpet and Deborah Weisz on trombone, in this casealways use that space to excellent effect.
Two contrasting tunes show the range of Begian's writing and arranging talents. "Halay" displays elements of East European folk, hints of Duke Ellington and even the humor of Raymond Scott's idiosyncratic compositions. Dimitri Moderbacher's clarinet takes a central role on this driving and swinging tune. The lovely "Suddenly, Summer Falls" is a more serious piece; its beautiful melody is laidback and controlled but still emotive, and once again the solosfrom Begian, Moderbacher on flute, and flugelhornist Jason Colbyare crucial to the tune's success.
On some occasionsthe mid-section of "Funky Coffee" and the first half of "Patience"there is a tendency for the higher-register instruments to overwhelm the bass sounds, and this leads to a loss of the tunes' rhythmic roots; probably a result of the mix rather than the arrangement. Elsewhere, the instrumental combination works perfectly, creating a balance of sounds even on Begian's most ambitious compositions, such as the four-part "Tayloration."
Big Fat Grin shows just how a talented big band can create affecting music. As a player, Begian is a key member of the group but he stays predominantly in the background. His strength as a leader lies not only in his writing and arranging but in his ability to identify and use his band members' strengths to their greatest effect-. It's a rare ability, and one which helps to make Big Fat Grin such a successful example of a big band at work.