When Herb Harrison, director emeritus of Jazz Studies at Cal State University-Sacramento, retired a number of years ago and moved to his wife, Mary's, hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he never envisioned a "second career" writing for and conducting a ready-made big band. That was before he met Vaughn Wiester, whose Famous Jazz Orchestra holds forth each Monday evening at the Columbus Music Hall, and who wasn't about to let talent like Harrison's go to seed.
To make a long story short, Harrison, now 82 years young, was soon contributing charts for the orchestra, many of which were recorded over a period of several years by engineer Don Loose. Herb's Book, the FJO's third album since it was formed eight years ago, is devoted entirely to Harrison's arrangements, as sight-read during those Monday evening sessions (that's right, the orchestra doesn't rehearse, usually seeing the music for the first time when the lights go down and the performance begins).
To pull that off, a leader must have sidemen who know what they're about, and Wiester has some of the Columbus area's best, several of whom have spent time on the road with various bands, as Wiester once did with Woody Herman and others. Drummer John Von Ohlen, a mainstay with Cincinnati's celebrated Blue Wisp Big Band, sits in on the last number, "Bus to Nowhere" (based on Stan Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm"), one of Harrison's three original compositions (the others are "Third Set Sarah" and "The Cat's Meow"). There's one more, Al Young's "Chip Off the Old Block," to complement ten jazz standards and evergreens from the Great American Songbook.
Loose has sought to preserve the informal atmosphere of a live concert, recording the ensemble without amplification through a single pair of microphones located front row center in the audience, which occupies half of the room, while using minimal signal processing and no dynamic compression. The result is quite similar to what one would hear on a given Monday evening at the Columbus Music Hall.
The orchestra sight-reads Herb's Book admirably, while the various soloists do their utmost to keep things bright and interesting. Trombonist Linda Landis is featured on "When You Wish Upon a Star," tenor Brian Olsheski on "Give Me the Simple Life," trombonist Matt Ellis on "All of Me," baritone Bob LeBeau on "For You," Von Ohlen and horn player Sarah Brown on "Bus to Nowhere." A splendid introduction to Herb's Book ; we hope there are many more chapters yet to come.