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Dave Brubeck: Small Groups, Large Stature

Jack Bowers By

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On his first recording as leader of a big band, Oregon-based composer / arranger Ezra Weiss epitomizes "contemporary" in the best sense of the word. It helps, of course, to have an ensemble as proficient as that supervised by saxophonist Rob Scheps and a guest artist of the caliber of trumpeter Greg Gisbert to interpret and enhance Weiss's elaborate charts. Weiss wrote five of the seven numbers to complement the standard "It's You or No One" and the well-traveled spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger," on which Gisbert frames an engaging solo (as he does on "Our Path to This Moment" and "Rise and Fall").

Besides composing and arranging, Weiss plays sparkling piano on "It's You," the melodically lustrous "Kunlangeta" and graceful "Jessie's Song," written for his wife. Scheps solos as well, and robustly, on soprano ("Our Path") and tenor sax ("It's You," "Wayfaring Stranger"). Trombonist Craig Hilton and Tomas Phillips is showcased on "Kunlangeta," while baritone saxophonist Robert Crowell spars with Gisbert on "Rise and Fall." Other soloists of note are trumpeter Paul Mazzio ("It's You"), alto David Valdez and pianist Ramsey Embric} ("The Promise"), tenor Scott Hall ("Jessie's Song"), drummer Ward Griffiths and conguero Chaz Mortimer ("Wayfaring Stranger").

Even so, it is Weiss's burnished arrangements that entice the ear, as he paints a series of entrancing sound-pictures that are progressive in nature while well-grounded in the musical essentials: melody, harmony and rhythm. Our Path to This Moment embodies one more forward step for contemporary big bands, one that is remarkably engaging by any measure.

Seasonal Sounds

Octobop
West Coast Christmas
Self Published
2013

What would the Christmas season be without music? Much less festive, that's for sure. And even without the snow and ice, that's as true on the West Coast as it is on the East. Out in sunny California, baritone saxophonist Geoff Roach's Octobop is spreading seasonal cheer with a new CD, West Coast Christmas, on which clever arrangements of holiday favorites help brighten the landscape. In keeping with its West Coast provenance, Roach's eight-member group has "borrowed" from such peerless role models as Gerry Mulligan ("Line for Santa," "Bernie's Bells") and Shorty Rogers ("Saturnian Sleigh Ride," based on the Leroy Anderson classic) to enhance the holiday mood.

Roach arranged those numbers to complement charts by guitarist Jack Conway (six), bassist Brian Brockhouse ("Angels We Have Heard on High") and trumpeter Randy Smith ("Carol of the Bells"). "Line for Santa" blends passages from Mulligan's "Line for Lyons" with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," while "Bernie's Bells" is an amalgam of "Bernie's Tune" and "Jingle Bells." There is at least one lesser-known tune, "Filho de Papai Noel," and at on the pre-release copy, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is listed as "Jerry Mendelbaum." Both were arranged by Conway, as were "Santa Baby," "Christmas Time Is Here," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "The Christmas Song."

This is the fifth album by Octobop, which is no doubt comfortable in a recording studio. The ensemble plays well together, and solos are by and large passable, even though it's clear there's no Mulligan or Rogers in the neighborhood. On the other hand, the playing time is less than thirty-eight minutes, rather unsuitable for a present-day compact disc, which prospective listeners should keep in mind. A smooth, easygoing session for those who are looking for some Christmas music that is slightly off the beaten path.

Jasper Wood / David Riley
Stradivarius Christmas
Max Frank Music
2013

For music that is even more out of the ordinary, there's Stradivarius Christmas, on which violinist Jasper Wood teams with pianist David Riley to offer elegant interpretations of seasonal staples with "musical settings" (arrangements?) by Terry Vosbein, who is well-known to followers of big-band jazz for a pair of impressive albums with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Progressive Jazz 2009 and Fleet Street (songs from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd.) Although no biographical information is given on the CD jacket (and there are no liner notes), Wood is from Canada, Riley (a professor at the University of Oregon) may also be Canadian by birth, and the duo has recorded at least one earlier album, Stravinsky: Works for Violin and Piano.

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