Trumpeter Peter Welker's labor of love, a warmhearted tribute to three of the jazz world's most renowned composer/pianistsDuke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Tadd Dameronawakened memories of a similar enterprise from some years ago, the late Tom Talbert's 1956 record Bix, Duke, Fats. Like Talbert, Welker uses a pared-down "big band whose numbers range from ten to twelve (with a quartet and digitized "string section on the last number), and like Talbert, his spare, upbeat arrangements lend the session an intimate small-group ambiance whose payoff is quite charming and appropriate.
Welker's ensemble is loaded with world-class players ("I called in all my markers on this one, he says), including his mentor during student days at the Berklee College of Music, trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and the superlative trombonist Bill Watrous. Pomeroy solos on three numbers, Watrous on five. The program consists of four compositions by Ellington (including the brief opener, "Heaven, performed by a brass/reeds sextet sans rhythm section), four by Strayhorn, and three by Dameron. Most of them would no doubt be familiar to all but the most unseasoned jazz listener, and each one is a classic in its own right.
While one can't reprove the material or the performance, the sound is something else again. Like too many albums I've heard recently, large group or small, there is far too much brightness and reverb, placing the band in what amounts to an escape-proof echo chamber. This is true in varying degrees throughout, but most disquieting on "Things Ain't What They Used to Be, "Isfahan, "U.M.M.G. and "On a Misty Night. Welker emphasizes that this is a "live recording, an observation that is, unhappily, squarely on the mark. A shame, really, as Welker invested so much time and effort into steering the enterprise toward a successful outcome (he says he spent about 700 hours writing the charts).
That was time well spent, as the arrangements are admirable, as are the ensemble and soloists (besides Pomeroy and Watrous, they include saxophonists Mel Martin, Fred Lipsius, Ray Pizzi, Jim Rothermel and Scott Peterson; pianist Dave Mathews, bassist Mel Graves and drummer George Marsh). Welker solos only on the last track, Dameron's "Soultrane, with a rhythm section comprised of brothers Pete Levin (piano), Tony Levin (bass) and drummer Steve Smith. If it weren't for the sub-par sonics, Duke, Billy and Tadd would be easily recommended. It still warrants an endorsement for the first-rate musicianship, but with an asterisk for sound quality.
Heaven; Our Delight; Prelude to a Kiss; Things Ain
Peter Welker: leader, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn; Herb Pomeroy: trumpet (2,6,8);
Michael Whitwell: trumpet, flugelhorn (1-10); Jim Rothermel (1,2,5-8,10), Fred Lipsius
(3,4,9), Charlie McCarthy (3,9): alto sax; Mel Martin (1-4, 6,8,9), Scott Petersen (7): tenor
sax; Ray Pizzi (5,7,10): tenor sax, flute; Doug Delaney (1-10): baritone sax; Bill Watrous