Gerald Wilson Orchestra Detroit Mack Avenue Records
Composer / arranger / ageless wonder Gerald Wilson, most of whose recent albums (Monterey Moods; New York, New Sound; Theme for Monterey; State Street Sweet) have been built around sectional themes, returns "home" on Detroit to paint an earnest musical portrait of his adopted city, one that not only spawned the nation's auto industry but has produced a wealth of renowned jazz musicians from the Jones brothers (Elvin, Thad, Hank) to Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Betty Carter, Paul Chambers, Billy Mitchell, Curtis Fuller, Yusef Lateef, Dorothy Ashby and many others.
Even though he was born in Mississippi, Wilson's family moved to Detroit when he was quite young, and he was graduated from Cass Tech High School, once known far and wide for its exemplary music programs. It was from Detroit that Wilson launched his career with the Jimmie Lunceford Band, and the rest, as they say, is history. Wilson has been composing and arranging almost ever since, and the NEA Jazz Master and "Living Jazz Legend" has half a dozen Grammy Award nominations to his credit.
What is most remarkable, as epitomized on Detroit, is that, at age ninety-one, Wilson hasn't lost a step when it comes to writing sharp and exhilarating big-band charts. After framing a carefree mood with the snappy "Blues on Belle Isle," Wilson salutes his alma mater with "Cass Tech," a straight-on swinger with a sunny piano intro by Brian O'Rourke and pleasing solos by son Anthony Wilson on guitar, tenor Kamasi Washington and guest trumpeter Sean Jones. These are the first movements in the six-part Detroit Suite, performed by Wilson's Los Angeles Band; the last two (unrelated) numbers, "Everywhere" and "Aram," showcase his New York Band with guest flautist Hubert Laws brightening the landscape on "Everywhere."
"Detroit" weaves its spell with easygoing grace, "Miss Gretchen" demurely unveils her loveliness before cutting loose, "Before Motown" is bold and sassy (with apposite solos by Jones, O'Rourke, Washington, fellow tenor Louis Van Taylor, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and trombonist Les Benedict), after which the turbulent "Detroit River" engulfs the listener in a tidal wave of big-band bravado enhanced by O'Rourke, Anthony Wilson, Van Taylor, trumpeters Jones and Ron Barrow, soprano Jackie Kelso, trombonist Eric Jorgensen and violinist Yvette Devereaux (more than window dressing; she really swings, whether in the "River" or on "Belle Isle").
Washington, Jones and Anthony Wilson solo with the always-inspiring Laws and an unnamed trombonist on the mid-tempo charmer "Everywhere," while trumpeter Terell Stafford and alto Antonio Hart relish their moment in the sun on the colorful "Aram." Gerald Wilson has been and remains a marvel, and Detroit warrants a place among his finest works for big band. Would anyone care to wager against raising the ante to seven Grammy nominations?
Dallas Original Jazz Orchestra
Where There's Smoke
Where There's Smoke represents a 180-degree turn for Dallas' Original Jazz Orchestra, which uses its formidable range of weapons for the first time to back a singer, Drenda Barnett. One presumes that anyone who can enlist a band of this caliber as a support group must have talent to spare, and it's a pleasure to report that that is indeed the case. Barnett, who has been honing her craft in Dallas for many years, is a first-rate singer, as pleasing to the ears on swingers ("Deed I Do," "This Could Be the Start of Something") as she is on ballads ("You Go to My Head," "In the Wee Small Hours," "Midnight Sun").
Barnett is showcased on eight of the album's thirteen numbers. Besides those already noted, they include Michael Franks' playful "Popsicle Toes," the standard "Too Close for Comfort" and the Martha Raye show-stopper, "Mr. Paganini." She's charming on every one, singing with clarity, emotion, a solid sense of time and, best of all, her own style. If there's a flaw, it lies in her tendency on ballads to cleave single vowels into three or four. At times, the ghost of Anita O'Day seems to arise, but such appearances are brief and not at all dispiriting.
Elsewhere, the DOJO spreads its wings on four jazz originals and the standard "My Foolish Heart" (featuring alto saxophonist Randy Lee, who isn't listed among the orchestra's personnel). Tenor Stu Melis is the main man on Sonny Rollins' buoyant "St. Thomas" while trumpeter Ken Edwards and tenor John Gordon share solo space on Victor Feldman's "Joshua," Edwards and pianist Richard Powell on Miles Davis' "Blue in Green." Edwards solos again with alto Mark Lara, trombonist David Bowman and guitarist Kim Platko on Chick Corea's galvanic "Spain."
According to director / trumpeter Galen Jeter, the orchestra looked forward to backing Barnett, which speaks volumes about her capability, an endorsement she does nothing do disabuse. Even so, it's good to hear the ensemble charging ahead on the instrumentals, as this is the DOJO one has come to know and admire. In sum, two albums in one, the first for those who admire fresh and skillful singers, the second for those who prefer the unadorned sound of a sharp and powerful big band.
North Texas Two O'Clock Lab Band
Avenue 'C' Jazz
North Texas Jazz
Avenue 'C' Jazz is the first of four recently issued CDs by the University of North Texas' impressive Two O'Clock Lab Band to be appraised in this column in chronological order. The first three (2004-08) were overseen by the band's recently retired director, James Riggs, the most recent by his successor, Jay Saunders. Other reviews will follow in December, January and February.
While the university's One O'Clock Lab Band records more often and garners most of the limelight, the difference between that ensemble and the Two O'Clock Band is so slight as to be almost invisible. In fact, any resemblance between the Two O'Clock Band and a working professional ensemble is undeniable. To put it another way, these young students are seasoned musicians who can stand their ground with anyone at any level.
Their assignments on Avenue 'C' are as inclusive as they are precarious, starting with Alan Baylock's dynamic arrangement of Duke Ellington's durable "Cottontail" and including compositions and / or arrangements by Bob Florence, Don Grusin, Jim Knapp Orchestra, Alf Clausen, Chick Corea, Phil Kelly and Cole Porter's "Easy to Love," superbly arranged by Charlie Young to showcase the band's nimble-fingered saxophone section. As one would expect from musicians of this caliber (and from a group that was named DownBeat magazine's best college band in 2005), the Class of 2004-06 aces every one of them, apparently with no undue stress or strain.
"Cottontail," Florence's breezy "Bebop Charlie" and Grusin's airy "Water Wings" are superbly performed by the Spring 2004 ensemble, "Easy to Love," Knapp's spirited "Secular Breathing," Corea's fidgety "Life Line" and Florence's torrid arrangement of "Just Friends" by the 2005 band, Clausen's amorous "For Her" and Kelly's soulful "Bluelonious" and New Orleans-style "Pleading Diminished Capacity" by the 2006 ensemble. Comparisons are pointless, as each group plays with remarkable proficiency and poise as a unit while the soloists are invariably sharp and engaging.
Recording quality is excellent, which is especially helpful to bassists Danny Stone, Matt Blaize and Joe Johnson whose clearly articulated pulse helps anchor the three grade-A rhythm sections. If the time has come for you to hear a truly electrifying college-level big band, it must be Two O'Clock.
Ann-Sofi SoderqvistNorbotten Big Band
Sweden's Norrbotten Big Band, always seeking fresh ground to plow and new worlds to conquer, surveys on Grains music by veteran trumpeter Ann-Sofi Soderqvist whose forward-looking compositions and arrangements aren't for the faint of heart. To present them in a concert setting, as the ensemble does here, takes considerable expertise and bravado. Under trumpeter Tim Hagans' able direction, the Norrbotten band scampers through them without a hitch.
Even though her heart leads her to dwell on darker themes, Soderqvist can swing freely when the occasion demands, as on the opening movement of the three-part suite "Grains," the rip-snorting "Shorters Quarters" or the first movement (Fire) of "Elements." Between them, the two suites ("Grains," "Elements") consume nearly two-thirds of the disc's hour-long playing time. Besides conducting, Hagans solos emphatically on "Grains," "Var Ar Du Nu?" and "Elements," Soderqvist (flugelhorn) on "Du Ska Tacka."
Soderqvist has added lyrics (in English) to "Grains," Sun Axelsson to "Pisagua," Karin Boye to "Du Ska Tacka." All are admirably sung by Lena Swanberg, and all are incomprehensible to this reviewer. Something to do with life, death, searching and gratitude, one surmises. Norrbotten's soloists are more accessible, starting with Hagans and including alto saxophonist Hakan Brostrom, tenors Karl-Martin Almqvist and Mats Garberg, flugel Dan Johansson and pianist Johan Zakrisson. The ensemble as a whole easily subdues Soderqvist's strenuous charts.
As hinted at earlier, Soderqvist's music, even though rewarding, isn't for everyone, as it does require one's earnest concentration. Those who are unwilling or unable to make the commitment may find it uninspiring. Recommended to those who are prone to give new and unfamiliar music a reasonable chance to impress.
Jimmy Simmons & Friends Encore 2008
Many university-level Jazz programs hold special events these days, but it's safe to say that few (if any) aside from Lamar University in Beaumont, TX, showcase as one of the leading artists the university's president. It must be comforting for the school's Jazz Studies branch to know that Jimmy Simmons, the man at the top of Lamar's academic tree, is not only a Jazz enthusiast but one of the driving forces behind Jimmy Simmons & Friends Encore 2008, on which he solos on tenor sax and clarinet and sits in on piano.
The rest of the musicians on this concert date, one deduces, are with few exceptions Lamar alumni who have returned to help Simmons launch Lamar's "Investing in the Future" campaign whose goal is to raise $1 million to help underwrite the university's various ongoing enterprises. According to our count there are seventeen alumni in the all-star band assembled for the occasion, going all the way back to 1974 (trumpeter Gary Weldon). The vocalists are Sharon Montgomery (Class of '76) on three tracks and Mary Donnelly-Haskell from Los Angeles (two). Saxophonist Dixon Shanks from Lufkin sings on the funky "Soul with a Capital 'S'" and Herbie Hancock's "Stitched Up," guitarist John Calderon on "Moonlight in Vermont."
Montgomery makes her bluesy presence felt immediately on the impish "Let the Good Times Roll," which precedes classic charts by Tom Kubis ("Just Friends"), Bill Holman ("Too Close for Comfort") and Don Menza ("Groovin' Hard," featuring Simmons and Don Rollins on tenor). Dave Wolpe arranged the next two, "The Lady Is a Tramp" (vocal by Donnelly-Haskell) and "How High the Moon." Sammy Nestico's "A Warm Breeze" is next, followed by "Soul," Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," "Moonlight in Vermont" and a reappearance by Montgomery on "Deedle's Blues" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," sandwiched around "Stitched Up." The concert closes on a high note with Simmons' earnest bow to the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, on Louis Prima's powerful "Sing, Sing, Sing" (first-rate drumming by Billy McQueen) and Wolpe's robust arrangement of the folk anthem "Proud Mary."
For a pick-up group, the band is quite goodas is Simmons, who solos as well on "Good Times," "Just Friends," "A Warm Breeze" and "'A' Train." The trombone section is splendid on "How High the Moon," the saxophones snug-fitting on "Groovin' Hard," loose and lyrical on the laid-back "Warm Breeze." There are a number of other solos, none of which is less than respectable. The rhythm section (Calderon; McQueen; Jimmy Baas, piano; Chris Coleman, bass) maintains a tasteful groove at all tempos.
This is a pleasing Encore in every respect, one that places Lamar Universityand its presidentin a most favorable light.
South Nine Ensemble
Doing It Augie Style
Doing It Augie Style is the second album by trumpeter Augie Haas' South Nine Ensemble, a stylish mainstream nonet that neatly blends jazz standards and music from the Great American Songbook with compositions by Haas and other members of the group.
The ensemble's primary goal, Haas writes, is "to take the elements of the traditional big band and small ensemble and combine [them] into one." Even though it will never be confused with a full-fledged big band, South Nine does the best it can with two trumpets, a trombone, three saxophones and rhythm. The charts are crisp and engaging, the choice of music exemplary inasmuch as it includes the wonderful standards "Smile," "My Shining Hour" and "Pure Imagination," Billy Strayhorn's captivating "Intimacy of the Blues" and well-designed originals by Haas ("Hallways of Foster," "For Her," "Life Changes"), saxophonist Steve Pardo ("Catooga"), drummer Ryan Socrates ("Self-Deception") and Hirokazu Tanaka (the chameleon-like "Chill," arranged by Socrates).
To Haas' credit, he gives fellow trumpeter Cisco Dimas, a classy improviser, abundant room to blow, featuring Dimas alone (on flugel) on "Smile." Haas frames persuasive statements on "For Her," "Pure Imagination" (flugel) and "Life Changes," while Dimas answers emphatically on "Foster," "Shining Hour" and "Self-Deception," the last two on flugel. Pardo, alto / soprano David Palma, baritone Jason Kush, trombonist Chad Bernstein and pianist Doug Bickel keep pace nicely, fanning the flames whenever the opportunity arises, while Bickel, Socrates and bassist Joe Rehmer maintain an unflagging rhythmic pulse.
South Nine's debut album, The Llama, was quite good; double entendre aside, Augie Style is even better. The group clearly has hit its stride, and it will be intriguing to see what ensues.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Blues on Belle Isle; Cass Tech; Detroit; Miss Gretchen; Before Motown; The Detroit River; Everywhere; Aram.
Personnel: Gerald Wilson: composer, arranger, conductor. Los Angeles BandRon Barrows, Bobby Rodriguez, Jeff Kaye, Rick Baptist, Winston Byrd: trumpet; Jackie Kelso: alto, soprano sax; Randall Willis: alto sax, flute; Carl Randall, Kamasi Washington: tenor sax; Terry Landry: baritone sax; Eric Jorgensen, Les Benedict, Mike Wimberly, Shaunte Palmer: trombone; Yvette Devereaux: violin; Brian O'Rourke: piano; Trey Henry: bass; Mel Lee: drums. Guest artists Sean Jones: trumpet, flugelhorn; Anthony Wilson: guitar. New York BandJon Faddis, Frank Greene, Sean Jones, Jimmy Owens, Terell Stafford: trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Wilson, Antonio Hart: alto, soprano sax, flute; Ron Blake, Kamasi Washington: tenor sax; Ronnie Cuber: baritone sax; Dennis Wilson, Luis Bonilla, Jay Ashby: trombone; Douglas Purviance: bass trombone; Renee Rosnes: piano; Peter Washington, Todd Coolman: bass; Lewis Nash: drums. Guest artistHubert Laws: flute.
Where There's Smoke
Tracks: 'Deed I Do; My Foolish Heart; Popsicle Toes; Mr. Paganini; St. Thomas; You Go to My Head; Joshua; In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning; Too Close for Comfort; Blue in Green; Spain; The Midnight Sun; This Could Be the Start of Something Big.
Personnel: Galen Jeter, Terry Hager, Byron Parks, Ken Edwards, Eric Wells: trumpet; Mark Lara, Fred Sampson: alto sax; Stu Melis, John Gordon: tenor sax; Allen Beutler: baritone sax; David Bowman, Curtis Fox, Art Ruangton, Michael Lawson, Jason Hausback: trombone; Richard Powell: piano; Kim Platko: guitar; Jeremy Hull: bass; Gene Glover: drums; Kenny "King" Nickerson: congas; Rusty Wells: percussion; Drenda Barnett: vocals.
Avenue 'C' Jazz
Tracks: Cottontail; Bebop Charlie; Water Wings; Just Friends; Secular Breathing; For Her; Life Line; Bluelonious; Pleading Diminished Capacity; Easy to Love.
Personnel: James Riggs: director. Spring 2004 Two O'Clock Lab BandWalter Simonsen, Dave Richards, Tony Marvelli, Mike Maher, Jay Jennings: trumpet; Ben Burget, Brian Donohoe, Corey Wilson, Isaac Lamar, Jesse Clonninger: reeds; Adam Jensen, Mike St. Clair, Sara Jacovino, Dominic Marino, Chris Kozen: trombone; Matt Lawless: piano; Tom Kessler: guitar; Danny Stone: bass; Pete Wehner: drums. Spring 2005 Two O'Clock Lab BandRandel Bobin, Matthew Timm, Justin Tischler, Chris Borin, Drew Malloy: trumpet; Idit Shner, Andrew Pangilinan, Murray James Morrison, Carlos Espinosa, Darren Peterson: reeds; Sara Jacovino, Nick Wlodarczyk, Aric Schneller, Mark Breckenridge, Ben Polk: trombone; Josh Hanlon: piano; Chris McQueen: guitar; Matt Blaize: bass; Pete Wehner: drums. Spring 2006 Two O'Clock Lab BandSean Foley, Lee Koetz, Matt Timm, Thomas Eby, Justin Stanton: trumpet; John Leadbetter, Brian Girley, Isaac Lamar, Carlos Espinosa, Kazuki Nagoshima: reeds; Dave Richards, Nick Wlodarczyk, Aric Schneller, Jason Oliver, Jason Hausback: trombone; Ryota Ishikawa: piano; Lindsey Miller: guitar; Joe Johnson: bass; Michael D'Angelo: drums.
Tracks: Grains (1, 2, 3); Pisagua; Shorters Quarters; Du Ska Tacka; Var Ar Du Nu?; Elements (Fire / Water / Wind / Earth).
Personnel: Tim Hagans: leader, conductor, trumpet soloist (1, 7, 8); Ann-Sofi Soderqvist: composer, arranger, flugelhorn (6); Bo Strandberg, Dan Johansson, Magnus Eckholm, Tapio Maunuvaara: trumpet, flugelhorn; Hakan Brostrom: alto, soprano sax, flute; Johan Horlen: alto sax, bass clarinet; Mats Garberg: tenor sax, flute, piccolo flute; Karl-Martin Almqvist: tenor sax, clarinet; Per Moberg: baritone sax, flute; P-O Svanstrom, Magnus Puls, Peter Dahlgren: trombone; Bjorn Hangsel: bass trombone, tuba; Johan Zakrisson: piano; Mattias Welin: bass; Jonas Holgersson: drums; Lena Swanberg: vocals.
Jimmy Simmons & Friends
Tracks: Let the Good Times Roll; Just Friends; Too Close for Comfort; Groovin' Hard; The Lady Is a Tramp; How High the Moon; A Warm Breeze; Soul with a Capital 'S'; Take the 'A' Train; Moonlight in Vermont; Deedle's Blues; Stitched Up; I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter; Sing, Sing, Sing; Proud Mary.
Personnel: Jimmy Simmons: director, tenor sax, clarinet, piano. Alumni musiciansJames Marshall, Jeff Laird, Kevin Stone, Gary Weldon, Mike Westbrook: trumpet; Kurt Killion, Mike Krepper, David McArthur, Don Rollins, Doug Wright: reeds; Dixon Shanks: saxophone, vocals; Travis Harris, Tim McMillen, Lanny Marshall, Donnie Todd: trombone; Jimmy Baas: piano; John Calderon: guitar; Chris Coleman: bass; Billy McQueen: drums; Mary Donnelly-Haskell, Sharon Montgomery; vocals.
Doing It Augie Style
Tracks: Hallways of Foster; Intimacy of the Blues; Catooga; Smile; For Her; Pure Imagination; Chill; Life Changes; My Shining Hour; Self-Deception.
Personnel: Augie Haas: composer, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn; Cisco Dimas: trumpet, flugelhorn; Chad Bernstein: trombone; David Palma: alto sax; Steve Pardo: tenor sax; Jason Kush: baritone sax; Doug Bickel: piano; Joe Rehmer: bass; Ryan Socrates: drums.