While those of a certain age may reasonably presume that It's All in the Game refers to a hit song from 1958 by Tommy Edwards ("Many a tear has to fall, but it's all in the game . . ."), the "game" in this case is actually an acronym for conductor / arranger Doug Richards' Great American Music Ensemble, or GAME, formed in the mid-80s when Richards was director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. All in the Game, the first and (to date) only album by Richards' splendid ensemble, was recorded in 2001 and languished thereafter on a shelf for fifteen years until Graham Carter, a Woody Herman enthusiast who knows a good band when he hears one, agreed to release it on his Jazzed Media label.
Even though the album consists almost entirely of standards from the Great American Songbook, Richards' whimsical charts put a fresh new spin on every number, half a dozen of which are pleasingly sung by Rene Marie, a fellow Virginian who was then in the early stages of her late-blossoming career. The celebrated trumpeter Jon Faddis is showcased on Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," the late violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. on "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," and the dynamic duo sparkles again on Joe (King) Oliver's mournful "West End Blues." Richards begins by dragging the Joe Garland warhorse, "In the Mood," kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century via clever instrumentation, melodic variations and shifting tempos, and does the same with Al Dubin / Harry Warren's "September in the Rain," Vernon Duke / Yip Harburg's "April in Paris" (featuring trumpeter John D'Earth) and Ray Noble's "Cherokee," among other evergreens. The Gershwins' lovely "Embraceable You" (Skip Gailes, soprano) is all but enshrouded within Richards' ornamental framework but is no less engaging because of it, while the closing "Bird's Blues" uses four altos (Gailes, Marty Nau, John Winn, Rob Holmes) to salute Charlie Parker via four of his lively bop themes ("Now's the Time," "Au Privave," "Blues for Alice," "Billie's Bounce").
For comparison's sake, Richards seems to have been inspired by the adventurous Sauter-Finegan Orchestra from the mid-50s. The debt is perceptible everywhere, and especially so on the songs already mentioned. Whatever the leader's purpose, the ensemble grasps it firmly and imbues it with irrepressible brilliance and charm. A consistently fascinating Game whose new-coined rules belie its conservative base.
In the Mood; Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine; Clap Yo’ Hands; Stardust; When It’s Sleepy Time Down South; West End Blues; I’ve Got the World on a String; I Am Loved; September in the Rain; April in Paris; Cherokee; They All Laughed; Ain’t Misbehavin’; Embraceable You; Bird Blues.
Doug Richards: director, arranger; Roy Muth: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bob Ransom: trumpet, flugelhorn; John D’Earth: trumpet, flugelhorn; Rob DeDominick: trumpet, flugelhorn; Marty Nau: alto, soprano sax, clarinet; Jim Nesbit: alto, soprano, baritone sax, basset horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra bassoon; Skip Gailes: tenor, soprano, alto sax, flute, bass clarinet; John Winn: tenor, soprano, alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Rob Holmes: baritone, alto, soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jim McFalls: trombone; Dean Englert: trombone, euphonium; Lee Gause: bass trombone; Weldon Hill: acoustic, electric piano; Victor Dvoskin: bass; Howard Curtis: drums, percussion. Special guests – Rene Marie: vocals; Jon Faddis: trumpet; Joe Kennedy Jr.: violin.