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Fred Hess Big Band: Hold On

Dan McClenaghan By

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Fred Hess Big Band: Hold On Fred Hess has been prolific this millennium. For those familiar with the Denver-based saxophonist's last six discs, however, Hold On may come as a surprise. Since 2004, Hess has immersed himself in the art of the piano-less quartet, before augmenting his group—first, with a second saxophonist, and then a guitarist, moving from quintet to sextet and offering up a fresh and energetic take on free jazz.

With Hold On, Hess jumps into the big band arena for the first time, with stunning success.

This ambitious foray into the big band arena sounds like a set that Hess always wanted to make. In this respect, a comparison can be made between Hess and the late Joe Henderson. Both are saxophonists with huge technical mastery of their instruments, impossibly creative soloists and musicians' musicians. Each spent a good deal of time blowing under radar (more so for Hess, in a post-major label world) in spite of prodigious skills. Henderson got his shot at doing his Big Band (Verve Records, 1995), after the success of his Miles Davis tribute So Near, So Far (Verve Records, 1993). It seems that Hess has engineered his own opportunity after the critical success of his series of small label sets.

With the free aspect of his small ensemble sets in mind, a very free and perhaps even wildly cacophonous (Satoko Fujii-like) approach to big band might be expected. But the harmonies sound closer to the mainstream, and are often majestic—Duke Ellington even. Cool, ephemeral, lighter-than-air reed washes float through foundations of substantial brass, tied into a tight package by the rhythm team of drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Ken Filiano and pianist Marc Sabatella.

Fantastic solos abound by trumpeter Ron Miles, alto saxophonist John Gunther, trombonists Tom Ball and Nelson Hinds, Filiano and, of course, Hess. The sound of the tenorist breaking out in front of the ensemble for a solo is a marvelous experience—the gorgeous fluidity of his voice, the labyrinthine stories he tells, twisting and turning from one surprise to the next, wrapping up with off-kilter, Hess-ian logic.

Anthony Braxton's "RBHM-KNNK" and the Clef Family, back with "The Clef's Visit to Grandma," are the exceptions to the set's straight-ahead vibe. Braxton's tune is darkly abstract and wandering, with a superbly prickly piano solo by Sabatella. With the Clef's—who have appeared on all of Hess' small ensemble discs—things are as madcap as ever. An initial listen suggests an extended family fistfight on Grandma's back lawn, but Hess' liner notes reveal involvement of wild dogs and giant, mutant, radioactive wood ticks, as well as helicopters blown out of the sky by lightening strikes. Such is the world of Hess' friends the Clefs.

With Hold On Fred Hess proves himself a first rate big band man.


Track Listing: Good Question; For Thomas; Hold on; Sicilienne/Greensleeves; Opposites Attract; A Night To Remember; Pretty Little Gypsy/Chuggin'; On Perry Street; RBHM-KNNK; The Clef's Visit Grandma's; Knitwit For Tara.

Personnel: Fred Hess: tenor saxophone; Johan Eriksson: alto saxophone; John Gunther: alto saxophone; Dominic Lalli: tenor saxophone; Mark Harris: baritone saxophone; Brad Goode: trumpet; Al Hood: trumpet; Ron Miles: trumpet; Dave Rajewski: trumpet; Hoyt Andres: trombone; Tom Ball: trombone; Nelson Hinds: trombone; Gary Mayne: bass trombone; Marc Sabatella: piano; Ken Filiano: bass; Matt Wilson: drums; Tyler Gilmore: conductor.

Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Dazzle Recordings | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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