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Bob Lark Alumni Band / Bob Curnow / JazzMN Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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Bob Lark and His Alumni Big Band

Reunion

Jazzed Media

2012

As director for more than two decades of DePaul University's superb Jazz Ensemble, trumpeter Bob Lark has seen an endless parade of outstanding musicians pass through the ranks, which makes the first-ever Reunion of his Alumni Big Band a more than special occasion. Simply convening these eminent graduates in a recording studio for two red-letter days must have been a Herculean task, as many have gone on to fame (if not fortune) as working jazz musicians and / or educators in various parts of the country and beyond, several as leaders of their own groups or sidemen in others.

Once that hurdle had been surmounted and everyone was present and accounted for, Lark assigned them a series of meaty charts to digest, and the result, as anyone can hear, is an animated and colorful session that overflows with eagerness and intensity from start to finish. Lark wrote everything, placing arranging chores in the capable hands of Dominic Marino, Mike Pinto, Thomas Matta, Kirk Garrison, Joseph Clark, Scott Dickinson, Andrew Thompson and Ryan Adamsons. Lark composed and arranged the dynamic opener, "Reunion," an explicit bow to such renowned chart-masters as Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Slide Hampton, Count Basie and others. Following a Basie-style intro by pianist Mike Stryker, the trumpets take charge, with robust solos by Vance Thompson, Garrison, Dan Jones and Marques Carroll preceding Lark's Clark Terry-inspired flugel statement and the obligatory shout chorus by the ensemble.

The next two numbers, "Mad Dan's" and "Until You," both arranged by Marino, are among the more appetizing ingredients in a bumper crop: the first a rhythmic Latin theme encompassing ardent solos by Lark, baritone Ted Hogarth and alto Jon Irabagon (winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk competition), the second an engaging medium-tempo swinger with bright solos by Lark, Irabagon and pianist Ryan Cohan. That's not to undervalue any of the songs that follow, each one of which is persuasive in its own right, starting with another Latin-based charmer, "Roatan," neatly arranged by guitarist Pinto, and continuing with Matta's astute arrangements of "First Steps" (which calls to mind Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments") and the seductive ballad "Cathy's Song," which was written for Lark's wife and debuted on his small-group album of that name. Pinto and Lark solo on "Roatan," Lark, Cohan, bassist Joe Policastro, tenor Glenn Kostur and trombonist Tim Coffman on "First Steps," Lark again on "Cathy's Song." Garrison scored the easygoing bossa "Abruzzi," Clark the multi-layered "Suggestions," Dickinson the colorful "Ravenswood," Thompson the graceful "Winter's Touch," Adamsons the bracing closer, "Tango Caliente." Besides those already named, soloists who ensnare the ear include vibraphonist Justin Thomas and tenor Chris Madsen ("Abruzzi"), tenor Scott Burns and drummer Dana Hall ("Suggestions"), alto Dan Nicholson ("Ravenswood") and trombonist Craig Sunken ("Tango Caliente").

With so many admirable Jazz Studies programs enriching the contemporary landscape, the idea of bringing together alumni bands, as DePaul has, to document their proficiency is one that should perhaps be more widely considered, even in the face of economic and logistical roadblocks. On the other hand, such desires may spring from a selfish point of view, as albums such as this one don't come along every day, and it's a pleasure to hear an alumni band that is so sharp and talented. This is a Reunion that any champion of big-band jazz should welcome and appreciate.

The Bob Curnow Big Band

The Music of Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays, Volume 2

Sierra Records

2012

The Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays Group has earned eleven Grammy Awards for its various albums. At the risk of sounding partisan, it's time arranger / impresario Bob Curnow received due credit for superbly reframing their music in a big-band format, which he has done not once but twice. One explicit contrast between this latest enterprise and Volume 1, recorded seventeen years earlier, is that Curnow didn't have to travel from his home in eastern Washington state to Los Angeles to enlist musicians who were able to assimilate and unravel his elaborate charts, using instead the members of his twenty-one year old Bob Curnow Big Band. If there is any variation in quality between the recordings it isn't readily apparent, as Curnow's ensemble performs with world-class proficiency on every number.

The seductive opener, "A Place in the World," is one of half a dozen selections gleaned from the Metheny / Mays Group's Grammy-winning albums, Speaking of Now and Speaking of Now Live. It offers the first of several chances to hear one of the band's most engaging solo voices, that of alto saxophonist Todd DelGiudice, who shares blowing space with trumpeter Andy Plamondon in Curnow's galvanic arrangement. What may appear to be solos on "Follow Me," taken from another Grammy-winning album, Imaginary Day, are actually Curnow's re-orchestration of Metheny's guitar solo, imparted by DelGiudice and trumpeter Vern Sielert. "Follow Me" is followed by the lyrical, multi-colored "Wherever You Go" (also from Speaking of Now) whose glimmering solos are by DelGiudice, Sielert and trombonist Al Gemberling.

The buoyant "James," showcasing pianist Don Goodwin and taken from another Grammy-winning enterprise, Offramp, precedes two more numbers from Speaking of Now and Speaking of Now Live, "The Gathering Sky" and "You." The first is a spacious "big-band epic" in the manner of Stan Kenton, for whose orchestra Curnow wrote in the '70s, the second a warm balladic vehicle for DelGiudice's alto, Sielert's flugelhorn and Rob Tapper's trombone. Tapper, Sielert, DelGiudice (soprano) and drummer Michael Waldrop solo impressively on "Gathering Sky." The funky, upbeat "And Then I Knew" (alto solo by DelGiudice, Metheny-like intro by guitarist Kyle Smith) is from the album We Live Here, the easygoing "Afternoon" and rock-centered "As It Is" once again from Speaking of Now. DelGiudice and Sielert are exemplary on "Afternoon," tenor Gary Edighoffer and drummer Dru Heller likewise on "As It Is."

The penultimate selection, "Chet's Call," is the only song on the album never recorded by the Metheny / Mays Group. A pity, as its genial West Coast vibe is a pleasure to hear from start to finish. Metheny says it was written for a gig in the mid-80s with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Chet Baker "that never happened." Again, DelGiudice is the enchanting soloist, as he is with Sielert on the strapping finale, "The Heat of the Day," from the album Imaginary Day. That's a marvelous way to end one of the finest big-band albums to come along since . . . well, since Volume 1. Whatever your stance toward the music of Metheny and Mays, Curnow affirms beyond any doubt that they have written some lovely and charming melodies, many of which rest quite easily when realigned in a big-band framework. Volume 2 of The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays is easily recommended, as is Volume 1 (MAMA Records, 1994) if it is still accessible.

JazzMN Orchestra

Enriching Life with Jazz

JazzMN

2010

The JazzMN Big Band represents the great state of Minnesota and its twin cities, Minneapolis / St. Paul, and does so quite well on its second recording to date, the aptly named Enriching Life with Jazz. The album's ten selections (the last one, Oscar Pettiford's "Blues in the Closet," is listed as a bonus track) were taped during half a dozen concerts from 2004 to 2010, which gives rise to the inevitable fluctuations in sound and balance, obstacles the band manages to surmount with relative ease by dint of its unflagging enthusiasm and superb musicianship.

The album's showpiece, running for almost eleven minutes, is the "West Side Story Medley," Johnny Richards' classic arrangement of songs from the Leonard Bernstein / Stephen Sondheim musical, introduced in 1966 by the incomparable Buddy Rich on his album Swingin' New Big Band. The ensemble excels here, as does drummer Joe Pulice who has the unenviable task of sitting in for Buddy. The well-knit solos are by trombonist Michael Nelson and tenor saxophonist Dave Karr. No, this isn't Buddy Rich; on the other hand, it's none too shabby for a regional non-profit repertory band. JazzMN follows that with a tango (Astor Piazzolla's "La Camorra") and funk tune (Marcus Miller's "Splatch"), both nicely arranged by Fred Sturm. Baritone Kathy Jensen and soprano Pete Whitman solo on "La Camorra," bassist Jay Young and guitarist David Singley on "Splatch." The colorful "Blues in the Closet" is an engaging bonus, showcasing the band's virtuosic sax section (Whitman, Fred Bayer, Brian Grivna, alto sax; Karr on tenor, and John Zimmerman on baritone) who perform the entire piece by themselves.

There are two vocals, the first of which, "I Love Being Here with You," with Connie Evingson doing the honors, opens the album. Debbie Duncan is the vocalist on a Latinized version of Cole Porter's venerable "Love for Sale." Rounding out the program are the Count Basie / Lester Young evergreen "Lester Leaps In" (a lively platform for tenor Karr and pianist Mary Louise Knutson), Ray Noble's "Cherokee," Bob Brookmeyer's discerning arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" (featuring tenor Pete Whitman) and Joe Gallardo's "Bluesiando," arranged by Michael Philip Mossman. With a wealth of material presumably at his disposal, the band's artistic director, Doug Snapp, has chosen wisely, nimbly blending warmth and power (even though "Lester Leaps In" would have been a more persuasive curtain-raiser). In sum, a genial hour of contemporary big-band jazz neatly performed by a local ensemble whose talent looms much larger than that.

Eyal Vilner

Introducing the Eyal Vilner Big Band

Gut String Records

2012

It's always a pleasure to welcome a new big band into the fold, especially when it's as artistic and enterprising as Israeli-born saxophonist Eyal Vilner's New York City-based ensemble. Although the band is a tad undersized (two trumpets, two trombones), the leanness is never a problem, thanks in large measure to Vilner's impressive charts (besides playing admirable alto and clarinet, Vilner wrote four of the album's ten selections and arranged all of them). It should be noted, however, that Vilner appears to be more at ease with the instrumentals; the three charts for vocalist Yaala Balin are less persuasive, hindered at their core by ill-considered changes in mood and tempo that leave Balin hanging on a limb.

Whenever the band is center stage Vilner has matters firmly under control, enlivening Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'n You," Ray Bryant's "Tonk" and Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" along with his quartet of originals. Vilner solos strongly with trombonist John Mosca on "Woody 'n You," while Mosca, pianist Yonatan Riklis, clarinetist Dan Block and trumpeter Brandon Lee do the honors on "Tonk," Lee and tenor Ned Goold on "Un Poco Loco." Vilner's "Your Eyes" is smooth and mellow, "New One" clever and playful, "Night Flight" warm and atmospheric, "Epilogue" capricious and lyrical. None of them is a flag-waver; Vilner leaves the fireworks to Gillespie, Bryant and Powell.

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