John MacLeod & His Rex Hotel OrchestraOur First SetSelf Published
Those who mourn the passing of the great trombonists Rob McConnell
and Dave McMurdo
and, with them, two of the most renowned big bands Canada has ever produced, should take substantial comfort from this superlative debut recording by John MacLeod and His Rex Hotel Orchestra, an ensemble patterned after the Boss Brass in whose trumpet section MacLeod was a standout for some fifteen years. To further amplify the likeness, MacLeod's orchestra houses no less than nine former members of the Boss Brass and four alumni of the McMurdo orchestra. Like McConnell, MacLeod uses two French horns, one of whom, James MacDonald, performed the same duties for the Boss Brass. And like McConnell, MacLeod's charts (he arranged everything save "I'm in the Mood for Love") are unerring models of big-band tastefulness and swing.
MacLeod wrote the lively opener, "Great Danes," and three other charmers "B.S. Blues," "Marta's Vineyard," "Song for Rachel." Gord Sheard, a fellow faculty member at Humber College, composed the Caribbean-inspired "Monkey on the Roof," tenor saxophonist (and McMurdo alum) Mike Murley
the slow blues "Sometimes You Feel Like That," on which he doubles as phenomenal guest soloist. Returning for a moment to "I'm in the Mood for Love," it was handsomely arranged by McConnell's right-hand man, Rick Wilkins (who was unable to play on the album, as planned, and was replaced by Bob DeAngelis). MacLeod snapped the afterburners on Rodgers and Hart's usually even-tempered "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and redesigned David Raksin's lovely standard, "Laura," to showcase the impressive talents of lead trombonist Alastair McKay. ("Only trombonists," MacLeod writes, "will know how impossible this kind of playing is.")
Besides MacLeod, MacDonald, Wilkins and McKay, the Boss Brass alumni are lead alto John Johnson
, baritone Bob Leonard, trumpeters Steve McDade and Dave Dunlop, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren
, while McMurdo's grads are Murley, trombonists Rob Somerville and Terry Promane, lead trumpeter Jason Logue and tenor saxophonist Perry White (who played baritone in McMurdo's orchestra). Among the newcomers, alto Andy Ballantyne
is sharp and resourceful on "The Great Danes" and "Marta's Vineyard," guitarist Joey Goldstein sleek and mellow on "Vineyard" and "B.S. Blues." Vivian and Promane also solo on "Blues," while White and pianist David Braid
shine on "I'm in the Mood for Love." "Bewitched" is a fast-paced scrimmage for trumpeters McDade and Jon Challoner, "Monkey" a snappy vehicle for Braid and Johnson (on alto and soprano sax). MacLeod solos on flugel ("Great Danes") and muted cornet ("Song for Rachel," "Sometimes You Feel Like That"). With Warren and Vivian showing the way for Braid and Goldstein, the rhythm section is in steady and capable hands.
MacLeod's orchestra has had a steady weekly gig for a number of years at Toronto's Rex Hotel, hence its rather unusual name, which sounds somewhat like a remnant from the golden age of big band radio broadcasts. Whatever the rationale, this band by any other name would be as flat-out awesome, and that's all anyone needs to know. The Boss Brass and Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra are gone forever, but their influence and artistry live on, thanks to John MacLeod and his superlative ensemble. Let's hope this First Set
is the harbinger of many yet to come.
Tim Davies Big BandDialmentiaOrigin
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, "I have a dream." And it was drummer / bandleader Tim Davies
who responded, "I'll see your dream and raise you several nightmares." Indeed, it is Davies' troubled dreams, fears and phobias that serve as the impetus for Dialmentia,
recorded in 2007 with the transplanted Aussie's Los Angeles-based big band. The first four numbers comprise Davies' Dream Trilogy
, each of whose movements is based on a recurring dream or a theme from a dream. (How a trilogy consists of four movements is anyone's guess.)
Be that as it may, the band opens with "Counting to Infinity" (complete with Australian didgeridoo courtesy of guest Anita Thomas), based on Davies' dream in which he is at the world's most beautiful beach but trapped in a deep hole, his escape from which "involves counting every grain of sand in the world." As if that weren't enough, "Hanging by a Thread" (rap by Aloe Blacc
) involves teeth falling out, "Dialmentia" Davies' phobia about dial telephones (which, thankfully, are almost as rare these days as the dinosaurs). A full scenario of his recurring dream is provided in the liner notes. In "Pythagatha," Davies thinks he's awake and leans over to cuddle with his wife, only to be bitten by an albino python (not any old python, mind you, but an albino). On the plus side, Davies' nightmares aren't nearly as grim or terrifying musically as might be expected (fortunately, he also has a keen sense of humor that saves the day when all seems darkest).
The rest of the album is thematic in its own way. "Katie's New Handbag" was inspired by Davies' wife's purchase of an expensive Louis Vuitton accessory, "Gubernatorial Recall" (a showcase for Davies' dexterity with brushes) by the political situation in California prior to Arnold Schwarzenegger's interim election, "Blacknail" by the pain and consequences of catching a fingernail in a closing door. "Caravan (-dalized") is a hip hop version of the Juan Tizol
classic, "Elegy" a quiet respite from big-band bluster that features cellist Andrew Shulman and bass clarinetist Jennifer Hall
brightening Gabriel Faure's classical theme.
What does all this mean for the listener? Well, for one thing, a series of offbeat yet largely engaging charts, anchored in the big band tradition while bending at irregular angles and encompassing myriad quirks of their own, thanks to Davies' inspired and whimsical approach to the music. For another, a highly capable ensemble that believes in the leader's vision and gives his compositions and arrangements the best it has to offer. Third, a number of earnest soloists (including those already named) who shine whenever their names are called. They include altos Martin Kay, Frank Fontaine
and Mike Acosta, tenors Mike Nelson and Lee Secard, trumpeters Jon Papenbrook and Sal Cracchiolo
, trombonist Jacques Voyemant
, guitarist Mark Cally and keyboardist Alan Steinberger. And last but not least, a listening experience that is both liberating and enlightening.