James MorrisonSnappy TooMorrison Records
The first question that arises about Snappy Too,
the latest mind-blowing enterprise by Aussie James Morrison
, is how is it to be filed: under "big band" or "duo"? The fact is, the album is both, as the personnel consists of Jeff Hamilton
on drums and Morrison on everything else, from brass to reeds, bass to piano, even guitar, bass trumpet and banjo. That's no misprint. Morrison, the jazz world's consummate do-it-yourself enthusiast (not to mention musical genius), produced a similarly phenomenal album, Snappy Doo,
more than twenty years before this one was conceived. He had more help the first time around with Hamilton, guitarist Herb Ellis
and bassist Ray Brown
comprising the rhythm section. As Ellis and Brown have since passed on, Morrison decided they couldn't be replaced, so he simply "brushed up his chops" and added guitar and bass to his ever-growing repertoire. What's next? Harmonica? Accordion? Conch shells? (Watch out, Steve Turre; he may be coming for you!)
Besides performing (brilliantly) throughout, Morrison wrote seven of the eleven numbers on Snappy Too
and arranged everything save the standard "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," on which his Tommy Dorsey
-inspired trombone enhances Evan Lohning's lustrous chart. Morrison departs twice from the big-band format, on "Sad Blues" (scored for a traditional six-piece Dixieland ensemble) and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (a "duet" for guitar and bass trumpet). For those who believe no one person should embody that much talent, it is our sad duty to report that Morrison writes and arranges about as well as he plays, which is impeccably on every instrument. While he stops short of singing, it's not hard to envision his causing Tony Bennett
, Harry Connick Jr.
or Michael Buble
some sleepless nights. He's that good at everything he does.
Lest there be any inclination to dismiss Snappy Too
as no more than a "gimmick," it should be clearly noted that Morrison not only plays every instrument except drums, he plays themwithout exception, singly or in unisonabout as well as anyone on the planet. Not to belabor the point, but the man is beyond any question an unrivaled virtuoso. As to how the album was meticulously put together, Morrison writes: "We started most charts with a 'click' or 'guide' track and I put down the lead trumpet first. The reason . . . is that when you play live with a big band, everyone listens to the lead trumpet (or they should) so I needed that first to 'hang' everything else from. It's the hardest gig I've ever done on lead trumpetplaying with no band and having to play as though you are leading another fifteen musicians who aren't there yet . . .
"After the first trumpet I added the rest of the section, then moved on to saxophones, lead alto first. Then came the 'bones and on to the rhythm section. I went with the bass first, then guitar, piano and finally took the whole thing to Los Angeles to record Jeff on drums. . . . The way the drummer plays, both time and dynamics normally [have] a huge effect on the band. Jeff is used to having this effect as he plays and 'drives' the band. It was a new experience to have to sound like that whilst actually playing along to what was already there. Of course he did a superb job and made it look easy. The very last things to go down were the improvised solos. Some of these I did 'live' when Jeff was putting down the drums, and some were done back at my studios in Sydney." Central to the process, Morrison points out, was recording engineer Tod Deeley, "a musical magician who seems to know instinctively what I need when capturing music."
Speaking of the music, it begins with a bravura version of the standard "All of Me" (seductive Armstrong-like trumpet solo by you-know-who following a clever "trad" intro that sounds like it was lifted from an old 78rpm recording), Morrison's charming "Master Plan" (tenor sax, bass solos) and "Getting Sentimental." Another Morrison original, "The Call," is a mid-tempo blues for his eloquent trumpet, the easygoing "No Regret" a showcase for his equally evocative soprano sax and flugelhorn. The bright, fast-moving "Zog's Jog," yet another highlight, lends Hamilton a brief solo spot along with trumpet and trombone, which re-emerge in a more archival vein on the suitably heavy-hearted "Sad Blues." Morrison excels on baritone sax and trumpet on "Up a Lazy River," on guitar and bass trumpet (sans rhythm) on "My Prince." The album closes as it began, with Morrison in superior form on his impassioned two-part Gospel anthem, "Going Home," wherein he channels trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and pianist Oscar Peterson.
Playing one or two instruments well is remarkable enough; playing almost all of them flawlessly is akin to superhuman. To the best of our knowledge only one other musician, Bill Prince, has recorded an album (Happy Thoughts
) on which he plays everything but drums. Prince's album is splendid, Morrison's even more so. When the Grammy electors cast their votes this year they may have to reserve two
statues for Morrison, one for Best Large Ensemble, the other for Best Small Group. Either one (or both) would clearly be well-deserved.
Tall & SmallHigh on YouBosco Records
When tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb
and his wife, trombonist Linda Small, decided shortly after their marriage in 2008 to form a big band, finding a suitable name was the least of their concerns, as Christlieb measures somewhere around six feet three or four inches from fore to aft and Small is as elfin as her maiden name, making Tall & Small a natural choice. While it was a bit harder to persuade a number of the Los Angeles area's busiest and most accomplished musicians to come on board they managed that too, which meant that when the eleven-piece ensemble was preparing to record its first album, only the position of arranger remained vacant. As good fortune would have it, Christlieb has been a member for more than two decades of the legendary Bill Holman
's rehearsal band, so when the co-leaders approached Holman with a request that he write all the charts for High on You
the maestro readily agreed, thus ensuring that Tall & Small's maiden voyage would experience smooth sailing no matter how strong or equivocal the tides.