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John La Barbera Big Band: Caravan

Jack Bowers By

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Summoning Juan Tizol's travel-worn "Caravan" to raise the curtain on a big-band album poses a challenge for any arranger, one that John La Barbera easily brushes aside on the third recording as leader of his own ensemble. And while "Caravan" dazzles in La Barbera's capable hands, it is merely the opening salvo in a session that smolders from end to end, clearly rivaling and and some ways even trumping his Grammy Award-nominated debut album, On the Wild Side.

One after another, La Barbera's well-framed charts tantalize the ears and quicken the heart while bringing out the very best his all-star band has to offer. After "Caravan," they comprise engaging themes by Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner, John Goldsby, Jao Bosco, Wayne Henderson and three by the leader himself. La Barbera's "Roman Notes" was written for saxophonist, friend and mentor Joe Romano, "Accordin' to Gordon" for trumpeter Joe Gordon, "Trinacria" for Sicily, the La Barberas' ancestral home. Each one is a gem, as are La Barbera's other charts; there's not a lemon in the larder. In fact, it would not be implausible for one or more of them to be considered as Grammy nominees for Best Big Band Arrangement.

That is especially true of Barron's "Voyage," which scampers merrily along thanks to La Barbera's assertive chart and sharp solos by trumpeter Clay Jenkins and yet another La Barbera, tenor saxophonist Pat, who commandeer center stage again on the buoyant "Gordon." Alto saxophonist Brian Scanlon is showcased on "Roman Notes," bassist Tom Warrington and alto Kim Richmond on Goldsby's "Forgotten But Not." Yet a third La Barbera, drummer Joe, is out front with brother Pat on "Trinacria" (another name for the island of Sicily). "Caravan" is a sturdy vehicle for trombonists Ryan Dragon and Derick Hughes, while pianist Bill Cunliffe shares center stage with Pat La Barbera (soprano and tenor) on Tyner's "Atlantis" and (on electric piano) with Scanlon, Joe La Barbera and percussionist Aaron Serfaty on Bosco's Latin charmer, "Incompatible." The session closes with Henderson's high-spirited "Young Rabbits," the long-ears in this case comprising Hughes, Dragon, Joe La Barbera and tenor Rob Lockart.

Beyond the admirable charts, this is a band that was carefully assembled to breathe life into La Barbera's handsome blueprint, which it does with sagacity and style, from lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron to the hermetic brass and reeds and formidable rhythm section (Cunliffe, Warrington, Serfaty and the indomitable Joe La Barbera who is impressive in any framework). A strong candidate for big-band album of the year.

Track Listing: Caravan; Voyage; Roman Notes; Atlantis; Forgotten But Not; Incompatible; Accordin’ to Gordon; Trinacria; Young Rabbits.

Personnel: John La Barbera: leader, arranger/composer; Brian Scanlon: alto saxophone, flute; Kim Richmond: alto saxophone; Pat La Barbera: tenor, soprano saxophone; Rob Lockhart: tenor saxophone: flute; Bob Carr: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Wayne Bergeron, Bob O’Donnell, Willie Murillo, Clay Jenkins: trumpets; Les Benedict, Erik Hughes, Ryan Dragon, Ken Kugler: trombones; Bill Cunliffe: keyboards; Joe La Barbera: drums; Tom Warrington: basses; Aaron Serfaty: percussion.

Title: Caravan | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Jazz Compass

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