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George Stone / Fred Hess Big Band / Jamie Begian Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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George Stone

The Real Deal

Self Published

2010

Every once in a while the stars align, the wheel of fortune spins precisely and listeners are the happy recipients of a big band album that is remarkably engaging and spectacular from start to finish; in other words, The Real Deal. This is one of those unique and memorable occasions, one in which leader George Stone has not only recruited a squadron of superlative sidemen (and guests) but has given them exemplary music to play, some of it written and all of it arranged by Stone himself.

As for the tenor of the music, Stone's breezy opener, "D-Bop," and robust finale, "Straight Ahead," set the compass securely to "swing" and erase any doubt about his purpose. Sandwiched between are three buoyant originals by Stone, a quartet of familiar standards, Louie Bellson's "Peaceful Thunder" and Sonny Rollins' "Doxy." Guest trombonist Bob McChesney is astute and eloquent on Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," trumpeter Bobby Shew a mirror image on "When Sunny Gets Blue." Two more guests, tenor Donny McCaslin and soprano Chris Vadala, shower sparks before trading well-aimed volleys on "Doxy," and McCaslin is showcased with Stone, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Dave Tull on Cole Porter's "I Love You." Guitarist Steve Gregory, sitting in for Koonse, spars with alto Gene Burkert on Stone's Basie-inspired "Count Me Out."

Stone's electric piano introduces "Doxy," and he moves to trumpet to complement Burkert with a persuasive solo on "Straight Ahead." Tenor Bill Liston adds trenchant statements on "D-Bop," "Peaceful Thunder" and Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" (the last with trumpeter Charley Davis}, while Burkert, Stone and tenor Brian Scanlon shine on Stone's even-tempered salute to Jeru, "Mulligan's Nest." Tull, Stone, Koonse and bassist Trey Henry comprise a perceptive and powerful rhythm section, and it goes without saying that the ensemble, with such luminaries as Davis and Wayne Bergeron leading the trumpets and blue-chip players in every other seat, is razor-sharp and clean as the proverbial whistle (as is the album's lucid and well-balanced sound).

Stone's band, which has remained more or less intact since it was formed better than a decade ago, has recorded at least three earlier albums, each of which has much to recommend it, but with all due respect to them, this latest session is The Real Deal and as such is warmly endorsed.

Fred Hess Big Band

Into The Open

Alison Records

2010

Into The Open, Colorado-based composer / arranger / educator / tenor saxophonist Fred Hess's second album as leader of his own big band, opens strongly with four numbers tucked firmly in a straight-ahead pocket, encounters a brief unmelodious pothole or two on the sometimes spasmodic "Alison's Dream," but quickly recovers its equilibrium on an adventurous "Journey to Sentosa." A second sonic aberration, the offbeat tone poem "Baby Clefs Birthday," precedes the session's 15 minutes-plus finale, "Ninth House," a picturesque albeit sometimes strident homage to the music of John Coltrane.

This is by way of saying that Hess clearly achieves his goal of "looking back and thinking forward," as he did with the album's precursor, Hold On, recorded in January 2009, one year before into the open. While Hess is a modernist, he doesn't conceal his fondness and admiration for the big-band tradition, building on the legacy of such giants as Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan and others on the straight-arrow "Sooz Blooz," "Home Base" and "Norman's Gold." Hess wrote and arranged all of them, as he did everything else on the album save for "See You (Illuma Soma)," which blends a pair of lovely melodies written, respectively, by Jean Bardy and Dennis Goodhew. As noted, every theme is enticing and plain-spoken aside from short-lived sections of "Alison's Dream" and much of "Baby Clefs Birthday," whose singular themes depict an excursion to a park, a "dark cloud of menacing crickets," the abduction of Baby Clef by a robber, his apprehension (complete with "Dragnet" theme) and a discussion of the episode by family and friends at a favorite coffee house. That's a lot to swallow in less than four minutes, and so is the music.

If Hess didn't round up every world-class sideman in Colorado to equip his band he must have come close, starting with his working quartet (Ron Miles, trumpet; Ken Filiano, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) and including such heavy hitters as trumpeters Brad Goode and Alan Hood, trombonists The Atomic Fireballs and Nelson Hinds, saxophonists John Gunther and Peter Sommer, and pianist Marc Sabatella. Tenor Sommer is the only newcomer, replacing Dominic Lalli from Hold On. He solos with Hood on "Ninth House." Ball, Hinds, Gunther, Sabatella, Miles, Filiano and Wilson all have their moments in the sun, while the versatile Goode, who plays both lead and jazz, is front and center with Hinds on the rockin' "Home Base" and Filiano on "Alison's Dream." When soloists (including Hess) aren't doing their thing, the ensemble is rock-solid, as is its resourceful rhythm section.

Once again, Hess has accomplished what he set out to do: honor the legacy of big band jazz while moving it forward into a more contemporary framework. If albums such as this signal the future of big band jazz, that future seems bright indeed.

Jamie Begian Big Band

Big Fat Grin

Innova

2010

In his brief liner notes to Big Fat Grin, the second album by his New York-based band, composer / arranger Jamie Begian writes that what is presented therein is "serious yet fun art music with a sense of humor." Serious it is; art music, evidently. As for the humor, that's clearly a matter of opinion, as humor in music rests explicitly in the eye (make that ear) of the beholder. What matters, from a reviewer's perspective, is whether the music is admirable on its own terms. The answer, for the most part, is yes, although there are times when it tends to overstay its welcome (three of the album's nine tracks are more than eight minutes long, two more than ten).

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