It's not true that I never met a big band I didn't like. I just haven't met any latelyespecially not from the Seattle area, which gradually and without fanfare has become a breeding ground for invigorating contemporary big band jazz. Case in point: the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, whose debut CD, In Progress, is a corker from start to finish, and a textbook example of how admirable a regional "no-big-name band can be if everyone is on the same page and works diligently to make sure there are no perceptible slip-ups.
To begin with, the orchestra is impressively recorded with splendid balance among the sections, something that isn't always true when there's not a lot of money to spread around. So kudos first to recording engineer Howard Mostrom, mixer David Pascal and their colleagues for a job well done. High marks as well to Cutler and Daniel Barry for their consistently engaging compositions and arrangements, which complement one another marvelously. Cutler wrote half a dozen numbers and arranged John Coltrane's anthem, "Dear Lord, as a feature for his eloquent tenor saxophone. Barry, a trumpeter who has written for the Jazz Police and Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, among others, composed and arranged the remaining six, half of which underscore his fondness for Latin rhythms.
From Cutler's bluesy shuffle, "Mack's Place, to his airy ensemble piece, "Twilight Dawned, this is an album that never lets you down, as the orchestra deftly maneuvers its way through the invariably persuasive charts. Barry's essays include a mambo ("Milky Way ), cha cha ("May Day ) and bossa ("Encontro das Águas ), a groovy tone poem ("Dream Catcher ), a sultry showcase for tenor saxophonist Richard Cole ("The Checkered Demon ) and a swinging salute to the big band era ("View from the Top ). To keep pace, Cutler wrote the lissome "Alan Weight Speaking, clever "Get in the Game, lively "Autumn Mist and impulsive "In Progress.
Aside from Cutler, Cole and Barry (whose flugel is heard on "Águas ), the orchestra's cadre of capable soloists includes trumpet/flugels Mike Mines and Al Keith, altos Chris Fagan and Steve Treseler, flutist James DeJoie, trombonists Chris Amemiya and Steve Kirk, pianist Steve Rice and bassist Philip Demaree. Even so, I found myself smiling most broadly during Susan Pascal's breathtaking marimba solo on "May Day. The orchestra uses three drummersChris Monroe, Scott Ketron, Greg Williamsonand the rhythm section is razor-sharp, no matter who's in the driver's seat.
I'm told that Seattle has a "farm system wherein children start playing jazz in elementary and middle school, which helps explain why the Garfield and Roosevelt high school bands sound better than many college ensemblesand why so many outstanding professional bands have been springing up in and around the city. The JCJO certainly enhances Seattle's burgeoning stature as a mecca for high-quality jazz, and placing In Progress on one's list of the best big band albums of the year is a no-brainer.
Track Listing: Mack
Personnel: Jim Cutler: leader, tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Dennis Haldane, Mike Mines, Al Keith, Daniel
Barry, Peter Greene (6): trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Treseler: alto sax, clarinet; Vanessa
Sielert: alto sax, flute; Lisa Gordanier: alto, soprano sax (1,4,7,8,10,12); Chris Fagan (3,9):
alto sax; Richard Cole: tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Paul Gillespie (5,6,8,10): tenor sax;
James DeJoie: baritone sax, flute, bass clarinet; Chris Amemiya, Steve Kirk, Chuck Wiese,
Emily Asher (4,7,10,12): trombone; Nelson Bell: bass trombone; Steve Rice, Brian Kinsella
(4,7,10,12): piano; Susan Pascal (2,8,9,11): vibraphone, marimba; Philip Demaree: bass;
Chris Monroe (1,3,8,9), Scott Ketron (2,5,6,11), Greg Williamson (4,7,10,12): drums.