David Berger not only leads a terrific band, he also has a wicked sense of humor. Hindustan, the fourth album by his intrepid Sultans of Swing, comes complete with a cover photo of camels being led by turbaned Bedouins across blazing desert sands as the sun sinks slowly in the west. So where was it recorded? In sweltering Malmo, Sweden, of course, during a Scandinavian tour last autumn.
Berger and the Sultans are throwbacks to a heady time when thousands of big bands criss-crossed the country, braving innumerable one-night stands and swinging as if there were no tomorrow. Which is not to suggest that they are old-fashioned. Far from it. Berger's compositions and arrangements, even though inspired by Ellington, Henderson, Oliver and other giants of the Big Band Era, are for the most part staunchly contemporary, as are the band's soloists, and the Sultans are as comfortable paying tribute to Thelonious Monk ("Monkey Business ) as they are Basie ("Stompin' on a Riff ), Ellington or other legendary maestros. Even so, there are more than enough remnants of the epic big-band tradition to offer the listener the best of both possible worlds.
Berger wrote five of the album's thirteen selections and arranged everything, even Joel Frahm's snappy group exam, "A Whole New You. For a jazz composer, he writes, "there is nothing more rewarding than writing for a big bandthe jazz equivalent of a symphony orchestra. Every first-rate band needs at least two basic components: a powerful and perceptive lead trumpeter (Bob Millikan matches that description) and a sharp and resourceful rhythm section (as, for example, bassist Dennis Irwin, drummer Jimmy Madison and pianist Isaac ben Ayala, who's also one of the Sultans' more admirable ad-libbers). Madison is especially impressive on the title selection and Berger's Latin-based "Rising Storm, on which he uses every weapon in his arsenal (including fingers) to reinforce the rhythmic framework.
Following half a dozen instrumentals, the Sultans introduce vocalist Aria Hendricks, who is quite energetic but otherwise ordinary on her three numbers, "Too Marvelous for Words, "The Very Thought of You and "I Don't Hurt Anymore. Besides the songs already noted, the Sultans perform Thad Jones' charming "No Refill, the standards "Poor Butterfly and "Do It Again, and Berger's manic "Bumper Cars and pensive "Parting Words. Sprinkled throughout are shimmering solos by ben Ayala, saxophonists Jay Brandford, Dan Block and Todd Bashore, trumpeters Brian Pareschi and Irv Grossman, bassist Irwin and trombonists Wayne Goodman and Ryan Keberle.
No matter the terrain, be it sunny, bone-dry Hindustan or damp and wintry Malmo, this is yet another pleasurable excursion by the Sultans of Swing, one that traverses a broad expanse of musical territory without ever losing its way. There's always room for one more, so don't hesitate to hop on board and enjoy the ride.
David Berger: conductor; Jay Brandford, Todd Bashore, Dan Block, Mark Hynes, Carl Maraghi: reeds; Bob Milikan, Brian "Fletch" Pareschi, Irv Grossman, Seneca Black: trumpets; Wayne Goodman, Ryan Keberle, Jeff Bush: trombones; Isaac Ben Ayala: piano; Deniis Irwin: bass; Jimmy Madison: drums; Aria Hendricks: vocals.