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Darmstadter Big Band / Alon Yavnai–NDR Big Band / Red Bank Jazz Orchestra

Jack Bowers By

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Dartstadter Big Band

Kentomania

Self Published

2010

Of all the recorded tributes to the legendary Stan Kenton released during the centennial of his birth (2011), the Darmstadter Big Band's Kentomania (it's spelled that way on the jacket cover and disc) is unequaled for one reason alone: it has former Kenton standout Herb Geller as a soloist, the others do not. Geller, now in his eighty-third year, is as sly as a fox and spry as a gazelle on Bill Holman's emphatic arrangements of "Indiana" and "I Remember You" and Bill Mathieu's beguiling take on John Lewis' "Django." While that alone should be worth the price of admission, there are other reasons to consider Kentomania, not the least of which is that conductor Peter Linhart has assembled a world-class ensemble that readily absorbs the Kenton library and brings it vividly to life.

The album opens on a high note with Kenton's timeless theme, "Artistry in Rhythm," which segues immediately into Gerry Mulligan's even-tempered dance-floor arrangement of the Rodgers and Hart standard "Where or When." "Indiana" is followed by Hank Levy's seductive "Decoupage," Holman's fast-paced "Works" and his fiery arrangement of Enresto Lecuona's "Malaguena," "Django" by Bob Curnow's rock-inflected arrangement of "Live and Let Die" and Johnny Richards' temperate reading of Victor Young / Ned Washington's "Stella by Starlight." After Geller shines on "I Remember You," the band wraps things up neatly with Mark Taylor's prancing "Granada Smoothie" and a brace of splendid charts by Dave Barduhn: Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" and the Hanna / Barbera cartoon classic, "Meet the Flintstones." Tenor saxophonist Linhart is the featured soloist on "Stella by Starlight" and "Flintstones," alto Dieter Bock on "Decoupage" and "Malaguena," guitarist Axel Muller-Schroth on "Live and Let Die," trumpeter Ralf Noske on "Granada Smoothie," pianist Steffen Stutz on "Send in the Clowns." None of them disappoints, nor does the ensemble as a whole.

If nothing else, Kentomania explicitly affirms that European jazz ensembles are advancing ever closer to their American counterparts when it comes to assimilating and unraveling music that once was looked upon as inherent in our nature and thus beyond the reach of others. It helps, of course, to have Herb Geller in the lineup, but even without his presence this would remain an exemplary synopsis of the transcendent music of Stan Kenton.

Alon Yavnai / NDR Big Band

Shir Ahava

Alon Yavnai Music

2012

Alon Yavnai, an Israeli who began playing the piano at age four, says little about himself in the sleeve notes to Shir Ahava, his splendid large-scale recording debut with Germany's outstanding NDR Big Band. A quick glance online, however, reveals that he studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music, earned first-place honors in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, has played and recorded with the great Cuban multi-instrumentalist Paquito D'Rivera (with whom he won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album), and has performed with such well-known musicians as Freddie Hubbard, Regina Carter, Joe Lovano, Nancy Wilson, Louis Hayes, Ravi Coltrane, Claudio Roditi, Rufus Reid and George Garzone, among others.

Yavnai first became acquainted with the NDR Big Band while touring as a member of D'Rivera's rhythm section, wrote a couple of charts for the band, then approached producer Axel Durr to suggest that they collaborate on a full-blown big-band enterprise. Durr was receptive, so Yavnai returned to New York and started writing. The result is Shir Ahava ("Love Poem"), which enwraps seven of Yavnai's lively and colorful compositions / arrangements. Besides writing everything, Yavnai is listed as pianist but the keyboard he's playing on "Travel Notes" sounds early on more like a Persian santour than a conventional piano. Soprano Lutz Buchner and trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt also solo on "Travel Notes," one of three numbers that run for more than ten minutes (the others are "Au Castagney" and "Ilha b'nit"). The NDR receives a vigorous workout on every track and welcomes the challenge of helping Yavnai's music come alive.

It's clear from the outset that rhythm is at the heart of everything Yavnai writes, and there's more than a dash of Middle Eastern flavor seasoning "Bitter Roots," "Zriha" and "Ilha b'nit," each of which is a rhythmic and harmonic pleasure. When Yavnai changes pace, as he does on "Au Castagney" and "Sof" (each tastefully introduced by his unaccompanied piano), the outcome is no less rewarding. Yavnai's graceful piano also launches "Shir Ahava," a contemporary rhapsody whose Middle Eastern provenance is less conspicuous. The handsome solos are by Yavnai, Burkhardt, Buchner (tenor) and flutist Fiete Felsch. Trombonist Dan Gottshall is showcased on "Zriha," while Felsch, trumpeter Reiner Winterschladen and guitarist Sandra Hempel have their say on "Au Castagney," Felsch and baritone Frank Delle on "Bitter Roots," Yavnai, Felsch and Buchner (clarinet) on "Ilha b'nit" (whose closing shout chorus resonantly prefaces the tranquil "Sof").

Alon Yavnai is an exemplary pianist, composer and arranger, the NDR Big Band a world-class ensemble, and together they have produced an uncommonly invigorating and impressive album, one that should please any partisan of superlative big-band jazz.

Red Bank Jazz Orchestra

Strike Up the Band!

Hip City Jazz

2012

Red Bank, NJ, is best known as the birthplace of "the Kid from Red Bank," a.k.a. the legendary William "Count" Basie, one of the most influential bandleaders of the Swing Era and beyond. The city is now home to the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra, which upholds the Basie tradition in grand style on its debut recording, Strike Up the Band! It helps, of course, to have an artistic director as renowned as Joe Muccioli, who was able in 2006 to assemble an A-list of first-call musicians from the greater New York City area to form the RBJO. Besides being top-tier sidemen, these gentlemen know their Basie, and it shows. They even form a charming vocal "chorus" on the timeworn "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," nimbly adding counterpoint to James Chirillo's rhythmic banjo.

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