Fantazm is the second album by the John La Barbera Big Band, following last year's impressive debut, On the Wild Side. While the songs are new, almost everything else, we are happy to report, remains invariableeven the band's personnel is essentially the same, with guitarist Larry Koonse added on two tracks. La Barbera's charts (he arranged everything) are once again superb, his hand-picked crew of West Coast heavyweights deciphers them flawlessly, and John's brothers, tenor saxophonist Pat and drummer Joe, are key players without whose singular talents the enterprise would surely have been far less persuasive. Pat solos admirably on five of the eight tracks, while Joe earnestly supervises the band's turbo-powered rhythm section.
Besides conducting and arranging, the great John L wrote "Pythodd Fellows, "Over F and "Zin Zak, which are among the album's highlights. Brother Pat penned another medal-winner, "Yours or Mine or Blues, and suggested to John his sensuous tenor feature "My Love and I (David Raksin/Johnny Mercer's love theme from the film Apache). The African-framed title song, another exotic showcase for Pat, this time on soprano sax, is a lesser-known Ellington work from 1948. The album opens with the late trumpeter Woody Shaw's bustling "Moontrane and closes with a pop tune, Mister Mr's "Kyrie, enlivened by Wayne Bergeron's soaring lead trumpet and Bob Sheppard's torrid tenor saxophone.
"Pythodd Fellows, inspired by a social club in Rochester, New York, "the first place, John writes, "that my brothers and I ever heard real, live jazz, places an organ trio (the amazing Bill Cunliffe, moving from the keyboard; Koonse on guitar, brother Joe on drums) in the center of a bluesy big band arrangement that cooks from start to finish. "Over F, flavored by the Brazilian Frevo, embodies the energy and euphoria of a South American carnival, while "Zin Zak, dedicated to John's close friend and publishing attorney, the late Joseph Zynczak, scurries straight ahead behind a charming melody and ardent solos by Cunliffe (piano), Kim Richmond (alto) and Andy Martin (trombone).
Pat's "Blues, which features his tenor complementing trumpeter Clay Jenkins and trombonist Bob McChesney, is "a cross between a C minor and F minor blues with a couple of extra bars thrown in for good measure. Whatever the recipe, the cuisine is mouth-watering. Jenkins shines again on "Moontrane, as does Sheppard (soprano) on "Over F.
In sum, a tasteful and rewarding contemporary big band album and a worthy successor to Wild Side. If there's a fly in the ointment, it's that John L's charts and the band itself sometimes outpace the recording, whose gauzy "concert hall sound tends to lessen inner clarity and amplify the ensemble at the expense of soloists. But that's the only glitch in an otherwise exemplary endeavor, one that's warmly recommended in spite of it.
Moontrane; Pythodd Fellows; Over F; My Love and I (Love Theme from Apache);
Zin Zak; Yours or Mine or Blues; Fantazm; Kyrie. (55:08)
John La Barbera, composer, arranger, conductor; Wayne Bergeron, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dennis Farias, Bob O'Donnell, Clay Jenkins, trumpet; Brian Scanlon, Kim Richmond, alto, soprano sax, flute; Bob Sheppard, Pat La Barbera, tenor, soprano sax; Bob Carr, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Bob McChesney, Andy Martin (5), trombone; Ken Kugler, bass trombone; Larry Koonse (2, 3), guitar; Bill Cunliffe, keyboards, Hammond B-3 organ; Tom Warrington, bass; Joe La Barbera, drums; Scott Breadman, percussion.