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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.

Although it is presumptuous to draw any firm conclusions, this is one possible direction in which big-band trend-setter Stan Kenton might have gone had he remained alive to carry the torch into the twenty-first century. Clearly, there are echoes of the Kenton style and sound in Vosbein's strong and voluptuous charts, which accentuate the ensemble while making room for perceptive solo statements by its various members. Throughout, Vosbein remains true to Sondheim's vision, never downplaying the composer's precocity or melodicism in favor of his own scenario. Having said that, the voice that emerges is unmistakably Vosbein's, placing a fresh and indelible big-band stamp on Sondheim's cogent narrative.

Even though a handful of his songs ("Maria," "Send in the Clowns," "I Feel Pretty," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Tonight") have enjoyed a measure of popular success, Sondheim writes for the theatre, not for a wider audience, and so most of the songs here may be unfamiliar. Nevertheless, they are consistently charming, and at least one—"Not While I'm Around"—encompasses a melody that beguiles the mind long after it has been heard. The others are simply Sondheim, and for most champions of superior music no more need be said, save that Vosbein not only amplifies their most desirable qualities but also makes sure they swing.

As for the KJO, it's about as proficient a regional ensemble as could be hoped for, diving earnestly into Vosbein's multi-layered charts and bestowing on each one a special warmth and vitality. Brass and reeds are snug and resourceful, the rhythm section (anchored by drummer Keith B. Brown) alert and flexible. Soloists too are a cut above the norm. Trombonist Tom Lundberg is showcased on the opener, "The Barber and His Wife," trumpeters Rich Willey and Stewart Cox on "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and "By the Sea," respectively. Others who elevate the discourse include Brown, trumpeter Michael Wyatt, altos David King and Doug Rinaldo, tenors Alan Wyatt and Will Boyd, trombonist Don Hough, pianist Ben Dockery and percussionist David Knight.

In his earlier album with the KJO, Progressive Jazz 2009, Vosbein confronted music by Bob Graettinger, Pete Rugolo, Claude Debussy and even one song repeated here (Sondheim's "Johanna"). He showed his prowess on that occasion, and has done so again. This is Sondheim neatly redesigned and tailor-made for big-band enthusiasts.

Howard University Jazz Ensemble

Moonwalk

HUJE Jazz

2010

Another year, another splendid new recording by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble from the US capital. Moonwalk is the HUJE ensemble's thirty-fifth album in a series that stretches back to 1976. Each year the packaging becomes more elaborate and entertaining; this album is enclosed in an ebony cardboard jacket that houses not only the CD (within a second jacket) but a fifty-two page booklet that lists selections, soloists, personnel and arrangers before embarking on a wide range of topics from the university's Haitian Relief Committee and Benny Golson Jazz Master Awards to remembrances by Golson of Dr. Billy Taylor and McCoy Tyner, essays on the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and National Association for Music Education (MENC), a history of the Jazz Ensemble and its director, Dr. Fred Irby III, and an overview of the university's a cappella jazz vocal group, Afro Blue, and its director, Connaitre Miller.

So much for the trappings. What of the music? It's first-class, as always, even though the charts lean more heavily than usual on rock beats and electronics (swayed, no doubt, by the winds of change). The ensemble is securely on form on its eleven numbers, Afro Blue tasteful on the other (Taylor's impassioned "If You Really Are Concerned, Then Show It"). For solo help, Irby turns most often to alto saxophonist Brent Birckhead (an excellent choice) who is showcased on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," Rod Temperton's "The Lady in My Life," Gene McFadden's "Wake Up Everybody" and (with pianist Amy Bormet) his own engaging foxtrot, "In My Leisure." Birckhead and Bormet lead a group of astute improvisers that includes trumpeter Donvonte McCoy, tenors Elijah Balbed and Isaiah Allen, bassist Karine Chapdelaine, drummer Carroll Dashiell III and trombonist Mark Mauldin (who is featured on Mike Crotty's shimmering arrangement of Monk's "'Round Midnight").

The most straight-ahead component on the bill of fare is Wayne Shorter's "This Is for Albert," deftly arranged by Rob Lussier, as was Lee Morgan's shuffling finale, "The Joker" (burnished solos courtesy of McCoy, Allen and bassist Eliot Seppa). Completing the program are Tyner's "Senor Carlos" and "Passion Dance," Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" and Mike Stern's fusion-centered "Tipatina's" (on which Birckhead and Dashiell are relatively even-tempered while Joshua Walker produces sounds only a guitar-lover could love). "Fight Song," introduced by Chapdelaine's unaccompanied bass, is less strident than usual, thanks to Brian Lewis' handsome chart. Lewis also arranged "Senor Carlos," Eugene Thorne "Passion Dance." Birckhead (flute), Chapdelaine and Walker solo on the former, Bormet, Balbed and Dashiell on the latter.

Expectations run high when appraising a new album by the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, and Irby's intrepid undergrads never disappoint. Moonwalk reaffirms a legacy of excellence that has remained unbroken through Irby's thirty-five years as director. Even though more "contemporary" than some of the ensemble's earlier albums, the end result is well-knit big-band jazz that satisfies on various levels.

Landes Jugend Jazz Orchester Hessen

A Tribute to Kenny Napper

Mons

2010

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