Here's how to make sure a five-star big-band album receives a four-star review: assemble a group of the finest musicians within a stone's throw or two of the chosen locale, place them in a recording studio, hand them superlative charts to read then add vocals. In this case three of same, pretty much undermining what is an otherwise sharp and likeable enterprise.
That's not meant to disparage Heidi Schmidt whose vocalizing on the Denver-based CJRO's debut album, Invitation,
isn't that bad, simply unnecessary (she does, however, pronounce the word "average" as "averah" ---no less than three times on Cy Coleman's "It Amazes Me," a Judy Garland-like pretense that definitely amazed at least one impartial listener). While Schmidt sings respectably on Duke Ellington
's "Prelude to a Kiss," she is for the most part eclipsed by Wil Swindler's roaring arrangement of Bronislau Kaper's "Invitation." As for the instrumentals (five), they are by and large splendid, with tight ensemble work by brass and reeds amplifying terrific support from the orchestra's sure-handed rhythm section (Eric Gunnison
, piano; Mike Abbott
, guitar; Bijoux Barbosa
, bass; Mike Marlier
The "by and large" qualifier is called for owing to the album's finale, Joe Zawinul
's lumbering "Birdland," arranged by Nick Lane
and "adapted / expanded" by trombonist Steve Wiest
, which slides into the unappetizing realm of funk-rock, somewhat out of character considering what has led up to it (tasteful arrangements of five standards, Gerry Mulligan
's warm, fugue-like "Festive Minor" and Swindler's lively and charming original, "Hopscotch"). The CJRO boasts a number of resourceful soloists, each of whom validates that assessment. Gunnison is featured on "Prelude to a Kiss," solos impressively with Wiest on "I'm Old Fashioned," with trumpeter Greg Gisbert
on "Invitation" and (uncredited) with trumpeter Al Hood and music director / alto saxophonist Art Boulton on "Hopscotch." Trombonist / arranger Paul McKee
and tenor Eric Erhardt
enliven Rodgers and Hart's "With a Song in My Heart," keeping pace with Gisbert and baritone Swindler on "Festive Minor," Erhardt and guitarist Mike Abbott
Once everything has been weighed, the scale leans heavily toward a laudatory view of the CJRO's initial recording, one that would be even more so had the ensemble chosen to focus the spotlight solely on its instrumental prowess. A word to the wise . . .
Hopscotch; With a Song in My Heart; Invitation; I’m Old Fashioned; Prelude to a Kiss; Festive Minor; It Amazes Me; Birdland.
Art Bouton: music director, alto sax; Greg Gisbert: trumpet; Jake Boldman: trumpet; Al Hood: trumpet; Dawn Kramer: trumpet; Sam Williams: alto sax; Eric Erhardt: tenor sax; Tom Myer: tenor sax; Wil Swindler: baritone sax; Steve Wiest: trombone; Paul McKee: trombone; Scott Bean: trombone; Greg Harper: bass trombone; Eric Gunnison: piano; Mike Abbott: guitar; Bijoux Barbosa: bass; Mike Marlier: drums; Heidi Schmidt: vocals.