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Fred Hess Big Band: Hold On

Troy Collins By

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Originally from Abington, Pennsylvania, tenor saxophonist Fred Hess has resided in Denver, Colorado since 1981. Though Denver is not often considered a hotbed of progressive jazz, Hess, as founder of the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble and Denver's Creative Music Works Orchestra, has fashioned an alternative to the East Coast/West Coast paradigm. With 14 albums as a leader to his credit, Hess and his regular collaborators have documented a fertile body of work, with many tunes from his burgeoning songbook featured on Hold On, Hess' first big band album.

First heard together on The Long and Short of It (Tapestry, 2004), trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson comprise Hess' tightly knit quartet—the foundation of this 16-piece big band. Split evenly between covers and expanded versions of his own compositions, the album's 11 tunes prove Hess to be a compelling arranger. Exploring an assortment of prewar and postwar styles, he encapsulates everything in his writing from the vibrant swing of Count Basie and Duke Ellington to the outward bound experimentation of Muhal Richard Abrams and Sun Ra.

The swaggering blues of "Good Question" opens the album with a round robin of pithy solos and punchy riffs, setting the mood for much of the set. Revisiting classical forms, "Sicilienne/Greensleeves" interweaves Faure's nostalgic melody with the venerable English folk tune, yielding lush, bucolic panoramas. Hearkening back to the days of cutting contests, the title track features an old-school tenor battle between Hess and Dominic Lalli, who parry and feint with spry congeniality. Moving conceptually forward, "On Perry Street" struts into modernism, with trumpeter Brad Goode launching piquant barbs across funky backbeats, before the leader unfurls an intensifying series of coiled thematic variations.

Heading into vanguard territory, Hess unveils thorny arrangements of Gary McFarland's "Pretty Little Gypsy/Chuggin'" and Anthony Braxton's "RBHM-KNNK." The former modulates from winsome melancholy to sultry blues, culminating in a riotous carnivalesque climax before returning to the tonic. The latter balances cubist angles and shifting tempos while spotlighting Marc Sabatella's ramshackle piano salvos and John Gunther's elliptical alto cadences. Hess' own "The Clef's Visit Grandma's" ventures even further out as a discordant tone poem vacillating between AACM-inspired pointillism and comic narrative devices.

Compared to the recent spate of creative big band records, such as Darcy James Argue's Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009) and John Hollenbeck's Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside, 2009), Hold On hems closer to established traditions. It eschews electronics and popular music forms for tried and true devices that continue to quicken the pulse and lift the spirits.

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.

Title: Hold On | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Dazzle Recordings

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