Cecil’s Big Band with Mike Lee: West Orange, NJ, February 20, 2012

Bob Kenselaar By

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Cecil's Big Band with Mike Lee
Cecil's Jazz Club
West Orange, New Jersey
February 20, 2012

A completely packed crowd at Cecil's Jazz Club on a Monday night—not a common scene—but this was the beginning of the club's final week of operation and the final show for Cecil's Big Band. Led by tenor saxophonist Mike Lee for the last five years, the 17- piece band has played virtually every Monday night over that time, week in and week out. Made up of some of the most talented and accomplished musicians in the New York metropolitan area, the personnel have included veterans who've played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Mingus Big Band, and Maria Schneider, as well as up-and-comers from the jazz program at William Paterson University and elsewhere. There have been the occasional subs and other comings and goings, but it's clearly been a strong and steady working band, as evidenced by the great camaraderie, superb musicianship, and exciting performances on this last Monday night.

The first set featured the most recent coterie of regular members, and the second set brought in guests who have played with the band over the years. Both were anchored by the solid rhythm section of Brandon McCune on piano, Chris Berger on bass, and Andy Watson on drums.

One particularly notable highlight was "Old Dog," Mike Lee's original composition and arrangement, which featured his inventive explorations and mature artistry on tenor sax, sprinkled with rich, angular lines. Trumpeter Ted Chubb also turned in a fine solo on the tune and was heard a number of times during the evening. The title of the tune ties in with the name of the quartet co-led by Chubb and Lee, New Tricks, which was formed as an offshoot of the big band.

Also sitting in the sax section was Ed Palermo, a noted big band leader himself. Palermo's contributions to the evening were considerable, laying down an outstanding alto solo on Billy Strayhorn's "Bloodcount," and lending his thrilling flagwaver arrangement of Gigi Gryce's "Minority." The latter tune featured two sparkling, extended alto sax solo cadenzas by Mike Lee's 16-year- old son, Julian Lee. You'd think he was a pro twice his age, the way he deftly circled through bebop lines with occasional funky blues inflections, even venturing into some wilder, outside playing at one point.

Other band members contributed original compositions and arrangements, including trombonist and alto flugelhorn player Scott Reeves, tenor saxophonist Jim Saltzman, and lead alto saxophonist Craig Yaremko. One of Yaremko's tunes featured three piano players who've performed with the band over the years, Brandon McCune, Steve Myerson, and another young phenom, David Zaks. The three took turns in a round robin series of solos, hopping on and off the bench at the piano that, legend has it, was signed by Herbie Hancock on a visit to the club not long after it opened. There was another high spot before the close of the tune: Chris Berger's flurrying bass solo, strewn with impressive sixteenth-note lines.

Overall, the band's repertoire covered a fair amount of ground, including Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March"; "Say It Over and Over," the Jimmy McHugh tune recorded by John Coltrane among many others; Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings"; and "Little Pixie," Thad Jones's romp over rhythm changes, and the evening's rousing opener.

Midway through the evening, Mike Lee expressed his gratitude to club owner Cecil Brooks III, the well-known drummer who founded Cecil's a little over eight years ago, put his heart and soul into it, and built it into "'the spot for jazz in Jersey," as described by the Star- Ledger, the largest-circulating newspaper in the state. Lee didn't mention anything about the band finding a new home. Until they do, he and Chubb are continuing to make appearances in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere with New Tricks, and we're certain to hear more from the rest of the members of Cecil's Big Band.


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