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There is a saying about "the best of both possible worlds," an adage that springs immediately to mind when listening to Concerti, a remarkable collaboration between classical pianist Michael Houstoun and trombonist Rodger Fox's superb big band from Wellington, New Zealand. The captivating program consists of four extended works, two by American pianist / composer Bill Cunliffe, another by New Zealand's own Mike Nock, and the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev's lyrical and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 3, astutely arranged by Cunliffe for a large jazz ensemble.
Although Houstoun is not a jazz pianist per se, he has an unequivocal fondness for the music, clearly knows how to swing (as he does with abandon on the Prokofiev concerto and elsewhere), and every note he chooses to play is valid and germane. As for Fox's band, it is as impressive as they come and squarely on the mark from the outset. Cunliffe's sunny "Jazz Rondo" sets the compass, enticing the ear with its charming melody and irrepressible rhythms while Houstoun bares his surprisingly savvy jazz chops. Nock's "Raff Riff," arranged by David Lisik, is an intensive and powerful swinger with freewheeling solos by tenor saxophonist Bryn van Vliet, guitarist Nick Granville and Houstoun, who also comps quite well. The Prokofiev concerto is a masterwork, overspread with shifting tempos, luminous dynamics, crisp passages by the ensemble, sharp solos by Houstoun, van Vliet and Fox and tenacious work by the rhythm section, firmly anchored by drummer Lauren Ellis (whose powerful solo leads to its invigorating denouement).
Concerti closes with the second of Cunliffe's engaging works, "Warriors," another rhythmic tour de force on which Houstoun trades sharp ad libs with Anita Schwabe on Fender Rhodes while Fox adds another emphatic solo. The mood and tempo are upbeat, and Cunliffe appears to have drawn for inspiration (perhaps subconsciously) a phrase or two from Jerome Kern's standard, "The Way You Look Tonight." As before, the band is exemplary, all the more so as half a dozen of its members (saxophonists van Vliet and Eilish Wilson, trumpeters Michael Costeloe and James Wisnesky, trombonists Cameron Kidby and Sean Tickle) are fresh out of Fox's student band at the New Zealand School of Music.
There's another maxim that seems entirely proper when weighing the various elements in Concerti: "a marriage made in heaven." While some purists may argue that this is not big-band jazz in the truest sense of the term, all the basic components are there in spades. Above all, the ensemble and its "classical" guest, Houstoun, really swing. As the concept is exceptional, the performance unerring, and there is nothing elsewhere to censure, a motion to award five stars has been proposed, seconded and approved.
Jazz Rondo; Raff Riff; Piano Concerto No. 3, Movement 1; Warriors.
Rodger Fox, music director, trombone; Michael Houstoun: piano; Jon Papenbrook: trumpet; Ben Hunt: trumpet; Imogen Thirwell: trumpet (2); Michael Costeloe: trumpet (1, 3, 4); James Wisnesky: trumpet; Chris Selley: trumpet; Chris Buckland: alto, soprano sax; Bryn van Vliet: alto, tenor sax; Jake Baxendale: tenor sax; Eilish Wilson: baritone sax; Christopher Fox: trombone; Damian Forlong: trombone; Kurt Gibson: trombone; Sean Tickle: trombone (1, 2); Cameron Kidby: trombone (3, 4); Nick Granville: guitar; Anita Schwabe: Fender Rhodes (1, 4); Rowan Clark: bass; Lauren Ellis: drums.