Big band jazz has always been easy for the listener to bond with. It’s a familiar format. Some part of our backgrounds usually tugs at the thought of a solid team working together like that. These are artists who’ve trained together and who have continued, over the years, to maintain a forum where inexperienced jazz performers can get needed practice. The music of Stan Kenton and Count Basie is merged with that of Lennie Niehaus and other contemporary leaders. For his big band’s soundscape, trumpeter Mike Vax favors a heavy brass background that provides strength. His rhythm section moves with a fluid air. Various soloists step forward and remind us that this democratic team spirit will always be around. Vax has passionate features on “La Virgen de la Macarena,” “Love Theme from Hair, “Naked Gun” and “Vax Attacks.” His power, ultra-high range and majestic spirit soar as high as they did many years ago when Vax worked with the bands of Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. However, the musical arrangements, including one of Kenton’s, fail to bring back that old feeling. Fairly straightforward, they’re designed to mold an ensemble sound into one large, balanced package. At that, the band hits the mark dead on. Brass, woodwind and rhythm sections provide a balanced attack through lively swing numbers – some familiar and some original. But, the creative energy that should drive a big band’s soloists has climbed into the back seat. Improvisation and spontaneity are sacrificed in favor of the group’s desired round sound. The album’s high points include Mike Tomaro’s spicy arrangement of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and Rolf Johnson’s arrangement of “Ice Nine,” which features Roy Snyder’s enticing alto saxophone solo. Several audio samples from the album are available online.
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