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The Steve Wiest Big Band: Excalibur

Jack Bowers By

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Even though the odds are heavily against them, a handful of intrepid souls keeps struggling to safeguard the big band tradition, and a few of them even achieve a certain measure of success. Let's hope that trombonist Steve Wiest is among the modest group of winners, as his debut album, Excalibur, certainly bears repeating—not literally, of course, but at least in spirit.

Wiest, who cut his big band teeth with Maynard Ferguson about a quarter century ago and later earned a master's degree at the University of North Texas, is Director of Jazz Studies and Trombone at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. As that's hardly a bulwark of musical talent, Wiest traveled to Chicago to recruit the best sidemen he could find—a quest that was, to say the least, and an unqualified triumph. The band is a killer, and the players have no trouble mastering Wiest's expansive and strenuous compositions and arrangements, which sometimes veer slightly off-center but always with an explicit blueprint in mind.

The album opens with the first of three standards, Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek, on which Wiest shows his arranging chops by transforming the evergreen into a shuffle groove on which his trombone is featured with bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Dave Bayles. Although he isn't listed among the soloists, Wiest is showcased on each of the eight selections, which encompass two more standards ("I Concentrate on You, "On Green Dolphn Street ) and five of his originals.

The title selection was inspired by Wiest's love for all things Arthurian, "A Night in Pidruid by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg's masterwork, Lord Valentine's Castle. "The Once and Future Groove (based on "You Stepped Out of a Dream ) is dedicated to the Freddie Green-impelled Count Basie sound, "Cerulean 12 is a gutsy twelve-bar blues with a Thad Jones/Oliver Nelson twist, "Silver Spin a salute to Wiest's wife, Carmen, who he says finds a silver lining ("silver spin ) behind every dark cloud or negative thought.

Wiest is splendid throughout, playing open most of the time, muted (to complement bass trombonist Matt Ingman) on "I Concentrate on You. Other standout soloists include soprano saxophonist Randy Hamm ("Excalibur ), baritone Glenn Kostur ("Groove ), pianist Matt Harris ("I Concentrate on You ), tenor Ed Petersen ("Pidruid ), trumpeter Mike Plog and alto Tim Ishii ("Cerulean 12 ). High marks too for the rhythm section (Harris, Bowman, guitarist Mike Standal, and drummers Bayles or Bob Rummage) and the trumpets, supervised by longtime Basie stalwart Mike Williams.

As noted, an impressive inaugural album that fairly begs for an encore. Wiest has an abundance of talent, as does his ensemble, and they're well worth your time.


Track Listing: Cheek to Cheek; Excalibur; The Once and Future Groove; I Concentrate on You; Cerulean 12; The Silver Spin; A Night in Pidruid; On Green Dolphin Street (68:46).

Personnel: Steve Wiest: leader, trombone solos; Mike Williams, Matt Antoniewicz, Scott Harrell, Mike Plog: trumpet; Tim Ishii: alto saxophone, flute; Randy Hamm: alto, soprano saxophone; Ed Petersen: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Sam Fettig: tenor saxophone, flute; Glenn Kostur: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Paul McKee, Mark Bettcher, Barry Oosterwald: trombone; Matt Ingman: bass trombone; Matt Harris: piano; Mike Standal: guitar; Bob Bowman: bass; Dave Bayles (1,4,6), Bob Rummage (2,3,5,7,8): drums.

Title: Excalibur | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Arabesque Jazz

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