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Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band / Gerald Wilson Orchestra / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

Jack Bowers By

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Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band

That's How We Roll

Telarc

2010

After more than a decade of making beautiful music at home, on the road and in the studio, Gordon Goodwin's irrepressible Big Phat Band keeps rolling merrily along, burning rubber on its sixth free-wheeling recording (and first for Telarc Records). Apart from his unquestioned status as a world-class composer, arranger, pianist and saxophonist, Goodwin has a keen eye for what moves records, and never fails to include on his albums a few "guests" whose names are well-known in various precincts of the jazz world. This time around, they include alto saxophonists Dave Koz and Gerald Albright (featured with fellow alto Eric Marienthal on "Rippin' 'n Runnin'"), the vocal group Take 6 and electric bassist Marcus Miller (front and center with Goodwin at the Hammond B-3 organ on the funky anthem "Never Enough").

Goodwin, who favors the occasional hackneyed rock beat / tempo to keep the younger generation engaged, wrote and arranged everything on That's How We Roll save for the "encore," George Gershwin's time-honored masterpiece, "Rhapsody in Blue," which he has nimbly remodeled for a twenty-first century audience. When Goodwin chooses to pursue a straight-ahead course, as on "Hunting Wabbits 3," "Gaining on You," "It's Not Polite to Point" or "Race to the Bridge," there aren't many contemporary composers who can generate as much sustained vigor and excitement. "Bridge," in particular, is consistently inspiring, sounding more than a trace like a warmhearted salute to another big-band giant, the late Bob Florence.

With Marienthal in high gear, the Big Phat Band comes out swinging on "That's How We Roll" and lingers in a similar groove on the tongue-in-cheek mambo, "Howdiz Songo?" The three altos acquit themselves well on the choppy "Rippin,'" which precedes the whimsical "Hunting Wabbits," Goodwin's gentle ballad "Everlasting" (solo by guitarist Andrew Synowiec) and ultra-swift "Gaining on You" (Brian Scanlon, tenor; Goodwin, piano). The trombone section (Andy Martin, Francisco Torres, Charlie Morillas, Craig Ware) is showcased on the rhythmic "Point," Marienthal and Scanlon on "Bridge." Trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, who solos with Synowiec on "Howdiz Songo?," has the last word on "Rhapsody in Blue," following perceptive statements by Martin and tenor Jeff Driskill, while clarinetist Sal Lozano reproduces the well-known glissando that heralds the theme.

If this is indeed how Goodwin and his Big Phat Band roll, long may they continue to do so. At its best (which in this case is most of the time), the BPB is one of the more persuasive and proficient ensembles on the US scene today, thanks in large measure to the remarkable talent and versatility of its strong-minded leader. That's How We Roll is arguably the band's most impressive album to date, and considering the competition, that's saying a lot.

Gerald Wilson Orchestra

Legacy

Mack Avenue

2010

There's no gainsaying the legacy that composer / arranger Gerald Wilson has imparted to jazz in general and big bands in particular. Even so, he's never been one to rest on his laurels, and at age ninety-two, when most ordinary humans would be basking in retirement, Wilson has produced another in a series of admirable recordings that shows again what a remarkable craftsman he is. Beyond that, Legacy points to another aspect of Wilson's musical endowment, the eventual passing of the baton to his son, guitarist Anthony Wilson, and grandson, Eric Otis, each of whom composed and arranged one number on the album whose centerpiece is the elder Wilson's seven-movement suite, Yes, Chicago Is . . .

Besides the suite, whose recurring melody is enriched by changes in color, harmony, tempo and tone, Wilson has designed tantalizing variations on themes by Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini, using brief motifs from "Clair de Lune" and "Nessun Dorma" as his inpiration for the last two. Anthony Wilson composed the lyrical "Virgo" (on which he also solos), Otis the placid "September Sky." The Chicago suite, commissioned for that city's jazz festival in 2008, is the second recorded homage Wilson has paid to the Windy City (the first, State Street Suite, was written in 1993). Also for Mack Avenue Records, Wilson has composed tributes to Detroit, New York City and Monterey, CA. This latest memento encompasses Wilson's impressions of Chicago from his time in the U.S. Navy (1943-44) and afterward. The seven concise passages (three are less than two minutes long, the most spacious 3:43) range from "A Jazz Mecca" to "A Great Place to Be" with stops in between at the El Grotto, the Regal and 47th Street, a tip of the cap to "Cubs, Bears, Bulls and White Sox" and some spirited "Blowin' in the Windy City."

This is Wilson's "east coast" orchestra, one personified by a star in every chair. As prospective listeners would anticipate, solos are consistently astute and rewarding. Regrettably, the soloists aren't named, but they surely must include alto Antonio Hart, tenor Ron Blake, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, flutist Dick Oatts and baritone Gary Smulyan (sorry if anyone has been left out) along with Anthony Wilson and pianist Renee Rosnes. She's part of a blue-chip rhythm section whose other members are bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash.

When it comes to writing and arranging provocative big band music, Gerald Wilson never fails to deliver the goods. Even though he hasn't yet fully secured his Legacy, this admirable volume will serve as a suitable testament for now.

Terry Vosbein / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

Fleet Street

Max Frank Music

2011

Arranger Terry Vosbein has a knack for taking themes that may at first glance seem unsuitable for a big band, especially in a jazz context, and making them work quite well within that framework. On Fleet Street, Vosbein addresses music composed by Stephen Sondheim for the blood-soaked Broadway musical Sweeney Todd and, ably abetted by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, transforms it into a tasteful medley that gladdens the ear and enlivens the spirit in the best tradition of contemporary orchestration.

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