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Cecilia Coleman Big Band / Phil Norman Tentet / UNT One O'Clock Lab Band

Jack Bowers By

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Cecilia Coleman Big Band

Oh Boy!

PandaKat Records

2011

Among the many pleasant surprises on Oh Boy!, pianist Cecilia Coleman's maiden voyage as leader of her own big band, perhaps the most eye-opening is that the band had been together for only eight months when the album was recorded by the renowned Rudy Van Gelder. Coleman, a Californian who moved to New York City in 1998 and has been gigging steadily there ever since, much of the time as leader of her own small groups, formed the seventeen-piece band in January 2010, landed a steady monthly date at The Garage in Greenwich Village, and by the end of August had the ensemble groomed and ready for a two-day recording session at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The result is another admirable big band album from the Big Apple that teems with bright and engaging moments and shows clearly that Coleman did not press the ensemble into a studio before it was ready to perform.

It helps, of course, to have some of the New York area's most talented jazz musicians in every section, not to mention animated and adventurous charts by Coleman (who wrote and arranged every number). While each of them has much to recommend it, a personal favorite is the urbane finale, "Because," which opens as "Danny Boy" before segueing into a breezy samba with nimble solos by Coleman, alto Bobby Porcelli and tenor Geoff Vidal preceding a brief chorale-like coda. Porcelli solos earlier on the seductive waltz "Pearl" and "Until Then," Vidal on the sonorous "Lonesome Journey" and "#1." There is one guest soloist, trumpeter Don Sickler (who co-produced the album with Coleman) on the even-tempered "Magpie" (with collateral manifestos by tenor Stan Killian and trombonist Matthew McDonald).

Speaking of soloists, the veteran trumpeter John Eckert is impressive as always on "Dance" (with Danish-born alto Stephan Kammerer), the rhythmic "Oh Boy!" (alongside trombonist Sam Burtis, soprano Peter Brainin and drummer Jeff Brillinger) and dual-tempo #1 (complementing Mike Fahn's supple valve trombone and Vidal's rapid-fire tenor sax). While Coleman solos sparingly (on "Pearl," "Walk Away," "Because"), she makes the most of every opportunity, as do Killian and baritone Frank Basile ("Liar, Liar"), soprano Brainin—at the high end of the band's six-member reed section ("Walk Away") and alto Porcelli (the colorful ensemble showcase "Until Then"). Coleman comps with awareness, gracefully supervising the band's admirable rhythm section (Brillinger, bassist Tim Givens).

In sum, a persuasive debut by Coleman's sharp and well-knit ensemble The even better news, as she discloses in the unsigned liner notes, is that "there's definitely enough material [left over from the recording dates] for a follow-up CD." Oh Boy!

The Phil Norman Tentet

Encore

MAMA Records

2011

Since it was formed in the mid 1990s, the Phil Norman Tentet has been a class act, blending streamlined arrangements with sharp ensemble work and weighty solos to produce music that is muscular and persuasive yet always urbane and tasteful. Encore, the group's sixth album (and second on the MAMA label), offers more of the same: splendid music that is rigorously designed, immaculately recorded and neatly packaged for the perceptive listener by Norman and his earnest teammates.

If that sounds clinical, we should hasten to add that those prefatory remarks are in no way meant to imply a lack of ebullience or enthusiasm, as there is plenty of that to go around, starting with Alan Broadbent's light-hearted "Sonny's Step" and continuing through the frisky finale, Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," deftly arranged by baritone saxophonist Roger Neumann. Trombonist Scott Whitfield's arrangement of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" has been nominated for a Grammy award, but don't let that bother you; it really is a wonderful chart whose charming ensemble passages (enhanced by drummer Dick Weller's tasteful brushwork) encompass sunlit solos by flutist Rusty Higgins and (muted) trumpeter Carl Saunders.

Saunders wrote two numbers, "A Waltz for You Know Who" (featuring guitarist Larry Koonse) and the warmhearted "Dear Mr. Florence," an earnest salute to the group's original pianist, the late Bob Florence, which showcases Florence's able successor, Christian Jacob, and Saunders again on trumpet. Jacob arranged "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" for his effervescent piano, while Neumann scored "Bernie's Tune," on which he solos with Higgins (alto) and Whitfield. Completing the program are Higgins' lively arrangement of the swing era classic "Stompin' at the Savoy," Kim Richmond's uncommonly genial treatment of Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips" and Broadbent's graceful "Mendocino Nights." Jacob, Koonse, Weller and trumpeter Ron Stout share center stage on "Sonny's Step," Jacob, Whitfield, Higgins (alto), Neumann and bassist Kevin Axt on "Bernie's Tune," Higgins (soprano), Saunders and Neumann on "Savoy," Stout, Higgins (alto) and Koonse on "The Touch of Your Lips," Jacob and Axt on "Mendocino Nights." "Billie's Bounce" is a tantalizing closer, encompassing persuasive solos by Jacob, Weller, Whitfield, Higgins (alto), Saunders, Stout and Axt.

It has been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Luckily, there are no weak links in this chain, nor are there any misspent moments as Norman's seasoned Tentet skates smoothly through an Encore performance that is worthy of a standing ovation.

University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band

Lab 2011

North Texas Jazz

2011

For more than sixty-five years the University of North Texas' One O'Clock Lab Band has been the gold standard among intercollegiate jazz ensembles (with the UNT Two O'Clock Band always in close pursuit), and there's nothing on Lab 2011 to alter that appraisal. Place music—any music—in front of director Steve Wiest's intrepid paladins and they will play it about as well as it can be played. Listen, for example, to the band's perceptive treatment of Bill Holman's opulent arrangement of Jerome Kern / Otto Harbach's "Yesterdays," written for the Stan Kenton Orchestra's historic album, Contemporary Concepts. I daresay the Kenton Orchestra never played it better than this (Holman himself agrees), while tenor saxophonist Brian Clancy delivers a solo that no doubt would have charmed its originator, the late Bill Perkins.

Wiest and his immediate predecessor, Neil Slater, each contributed one original composition ("The Last Theme Song," "Special Interests," respectively) with others by the band's pianist, Colin Campbell ("Duplicity"), faculty member Rich DeRosa ("Perseverance"), students Kevin Swaim ("Nail in the Coffin"), Sean Nelson ("Doublethink") and alumnus Lou Marini ("Hip Pickles"). Swaim arranged the quirky opener, Michael Brecker's "Modus Operandy." As a bonus, the CD comes with a companion DVD, which enables the listener to see the band as it performs each number in the studio. One helpful item would have been a clear listing of personnel and soloists (there's a drawing of band members on the front jacket, keyed to numbers on the back, while soloists are named, for the most part, in Bob Curnow's celebratory liner notes, but acquiring them from either place requires more persistence than should be necessary).

As noted, there's no problem with the band, which is invariably sharp and stylish; the music, on the other hand, may prove unconvincing at times, especially to those whose ears have become accustomed to more accessible fare. These charts aren't always easy to digest, veering from time to time toward conflict and chaos before dropping anchor in less turbulent waters. That is most often true of the opening measures, as in "Modus Operandy," "Hip Pickles" and "The Last Theme Song." Once past the discord, however, each of them has much to offer, melodically and harmonically, and the band is on its game no matter what the musical context may be.

As for the soloists, they too are splendid, starting with tenor saxophonist Mark De Hertogh and trombonist Nick Wlodarczyk on "Modus Operandy." Campbell and trumpeter Pete Clagett have much of interest to say on "Duplicity," as do baritone Dustin Mollick and trombonist Kevin Hicks on "Pickles," alto Adam Hutcheson on "Nail in the Coffin," alto Devin Eddleman and trumpeter Kevin Whalen on "Doublethink." Following "Yesterdays," either Clancy or fellow tenor De Hertogh is front and center with an unnamed trumpeter on "Special Interests," guitarist Scott Kruser on "The Last Theme Song." The rhythm section, capably anchored by drummer Duran Ritz and including Campbell, Kruser and bassist Jacob Smith, is in the pocket and in control regardless of mood or tempo.

Lab 2011 is yet another impressive tour de force for the talented One O'Clock Lab Band, but no more than any inveterate observer has come to expect from the university's flagship ensemble.

New Zealand School of Music Big Band

Funk City Ola

NZSMJazz

2011

Don't let the title mislead you; this second album by New Zealand School of Music Big Band traverses a far broader spectrum than mere funk can embrace. Yes, the skittish opener, composed and arranged by the Yellowjackets' Bob Mintzer, strides along to a funky beat (ably provided by drummer Lauren Ellis) but that's as far as the funky sound goes until the free-wheeling finale, Mintzer's emphatic "Good News." The eight charts between, by Bill Cunliffe (three), Frank Mantooth (two), Bill Holman, Steve Wiest and Tim Davies, are by and large funk-free and plain-spoken. Even Davies, arguably the most radical among these arrangers, is sedate and unassuming on the ballad "Here's That Rainy Day"—a luminous showcase for trumpeter Jon Papenbrook, one of the band's three splendid guest artists (who solos again on "Besame Mucho"). Bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach excels on "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," as does guitarist Bruce Forman on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (both superbly arranged by Mantooth).

With those seasoned pros setting the pace, can music director Rodger Fox's unripened apprentices hold their own? Yes, they can—and do. Not only is the ensemble about as sturdy as they come, especially at that level, the soloists are eloquent and resourceful, while the rhythm section, as noted, shines under the spirited leadership of drummers Ellis or Shaun Anderson (each on five tracks). Tenors Michael Crawford and Richard Thai are the combatants on "Funk City Ola," Crawford, Ellis, Hayles (organ) and alto Jake Baxendale on Cunliffe's flag-waving "Bap Boo Dah." Cunliffe also arranged "Autumn Leaves" (solos by Crawford, guitarist Callum Allardice, alto Hayden Hockly) and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (Hayles, piano; Allardice and drummer Anderson). Vocalist Miriam Russell is featured on "Besame Mucho" (arranged by Wiest) and Holman's sunny treatment of "Deed I Do." Hockly, Allardice and Hayles (electric piano) are front and center on "Good News."

Papenbrook supplies the trumpet melody on "A Nightingale Sang," a seductive theme enriched by Reichenbach's expressive bass trombone solo. Papenbrook is no less inspired on "Rainy Day," nor is Forman on "Spring." In each case, the band supports them with intensity and assurance. When it comes to enlightening his students, Fox is definitely doing something right, as the NZSM ensemble is fast closing in on the top-tier bands, not only overseas but here in the States as well. Another album like this one and any discrepancy may become imperceptible.

SAP Big Band

You're Up!

Personality Records

2011

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