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John La Barbera Big Band: Caravan

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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The beautiful Mediterranean island of Sicily—and the triple-legged image on its national flag—are also known as the "Trinicria." That name translates as—and also describes—the triangular shape of the island. Whether that's a geo-historical lesson or not, the three La Barbera Brothers—John, Joe and Pat have established themselves as a most formidable familial trio in jazz history, right up there with the Joneses, Heaths, Adderleys, Breckers, and others. And, with Caravan that La Barbera legacy will assuredly continue to resonate.

On this swinging journey, arranger/composer and leader, John La Barbera has aggregated a superb unit of L.A.'s Usual Suspects, added his talented brothers—Pat in the woodwind section and Joe on drums—and delivers a classic, impeccably-performed, big band recording. This is ensemble jazz the way they used to make 'em—great writing, fiercely swinging, never over-intellectualized, and peppered putanesca with superlative solo and ensemble playing. In Sicilian, it's genuino.

The Grammy-nominated La Barbera's arranging style is a perfect blend of contrapuntal writing, brilliant orchestrations and rhythmic and textural variety ("Caravan," "Roman Notes," "Trinacria"). Shrewdly, his arrangements challenge these First Call players without sacrificing swing or rendering the listener confused about what's what. The overall tone is energetic movement—and move they do. With lead trumpet, Wayne Bergeron and alto saxophonist, Brian Scanlon eminently in charge, the ensemble is tight, never sterile, and constantly energized ("Incompatible," "Young Rabbits").

A generous leader, La Barbera offers his soloists not only ample room to stretch out and explore, but, intriguing background platforms that frame, spotlight and encourage the soloists. Saxophonist Pat La Barbera is on his game, always delivering as one of jazz's most sonorous and imaginative players. Trumpeter and frequent La Barbera "Brother in Bop," Clay Jenkins, who straddles both Hard Bop and more contemporary styles, solos heavy ("Voyage," "Accordin' to Gordon"). Brother Joe La Barbera, a rarity who can drive both smaller groups and big bands with equal imaginative support, shines throughout, as do his section cohorts, Bill Cunliffe ("Atlantis"), Tom Warrington ("Forgotten But Not") and Aaron Serfaty.

Caravan is big band joy, a familial romp—and an A+ effort in every regard. Why if they were still around and caught this trip, Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington might even consider adding a vowel.

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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