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Kris Berg & the Metroplexity Big Band / Michael Treni Big Band / Millennium Jazz Orchestra

Jack Bowers By

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Kris Berg & the Metroplexity Big Band

This Time / Last Year

MAMA Records

2012

Until now, bassist / educator Kris Berg, who oversees the Jazz Studies program at Collin College near Dallas, TX, has been widely known and respected as someone who writes and arranges songs for others to play. From now on, he'll doubtless be known and respected as leader of his own world-class ensemble, the Metroplexity Big Band, whose debut recording, This Time / Last Year, embodies half a dozen of Berg's engaging compositions and nine of his superlative charts.

Berg has undergirded an A-list of Dallas-area musicians with guest trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Wayne Bergeron, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and flutist Chris Vadala to produce an album that enfolds his music within a framework that is solid, spontaneous and swinging. Jenkins and Marsalis solo on the well-grooved opener, Sigmund Romberg's "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise." Jenkins reappears with tenor saxophonist Brian Clancy and drummer Stockton Helbing on Wayne Shorter's graceful "Night Dreamer," Vadala's alto flute is showcased on Luiz Bonfa's "The Gentle Rain," while Bergeron ushers the trumpets through their paces on Berg's funky "Games," solos on flugelhorn and sprays high notes on the minor blues "Forgotten Thoughts," and hangs above the clouds again on the Afro-Cuban toe-tapper, "Pah-Dah-Pah-Dah."

Guest stars aside, the MPBB has some formidable weapons of its own, which Berg employs wisely to add dash and color throughout his well-drawn arrangements. The foundation is sound, as Berg, Helbing, pianist Kurt Ellingson and guitarist Tom Burchill comprise a sharp and resilient rhythm section (pianist Roberto Verastegui sits in on "The Gentle Rain," guitarist Noel Johnston on "Games"). Section work is consistently admirable, and as for soloists, there are engaging statements from Clancy, Helbing, Johnston, Ellingson, tenor Jeff Robbins, altos Tim Ishii ("Forgotten Thoughts," whose Oliver Nelson influence is palpable), Collin Hauser ("Games") and Bruce Bohnstengel ("I'm Okay, We're OK!"), trumpeter Ken Edwards and trombonist Michael Burgess. Ishii is especially eloquent with Bergeron on "Thoughts," Edwards (on flugel) likewise on "This Time / Last Year," a lyrical set piece written by Berg for his "wife and best friend," Yvette. Completing the program is Berg's playful, up-tempo "RU Chicken?" (solos by Robbins, Ellingson and Helbing).

For those who may have been wondering, a word about the band's name: the Dallas-Fort Worth area is widely known as the Metroplex, hence the label Metroplexity Big Band. With This Time / Last Year, Kris Berg has added yet another feather to his already sizable and impressive cap, that of prominent bandleader. Let's hope he chooses to wear that cap quite often.

The Michael Treni Big Band

Boy's Night Out

Bell Productions

2012

The opening number on Boy's Night Out, the second recording by the Michael Treni Big Band, is, to say the least, imprecise. It announces that "Something's Coming," whereas the fact is something's already here; to be precise, one of the most well-stocked and exciting big bands to grace the New York scene in quite some time. Ably led by trombonist / arranger Treni (more about him anon), the band proves in every way that it is a force to be reckoned with, performing flawlessly as a unit while clearing space for a series of keen and resourceful solos by its several resident craftsmen.

Treni, once an up-and-coming trombonist in the Big Apple, abandoned the music business in the '80s to form a company specializing in wireless audio and language interpretation systems, returning to music several years ago as an arranger and eventually forming the MTBB with his friend and producer, Roy Nicolosi, who doubles as the group's baritone saxophonist. Treni's aim was to form a band that excelled at playing his kind of music—charts inspired by Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, Bob Brookmeyer and other legendary arrangers but enriched by Treni's singular approach to the music. That he has done so is unmistakable from the opening measure to the endmost crescendo of Boy's Night Out.

A case in point is "Something's Coming," written by Leonard Bernstein for the Broadway musical West Side Story, a song whose natural swing is reinforced by Treni's clever use of muted trumpets in waltz time set against a rhythmic framework that underlines strong statements by trumpeter Vinnie Cutro and the band's key soloist, Jerry Bergonzi (on soprano sax). The bracing "Boy's Night Out," a tribute to Thad Jones that celebrates the joy of hanging out and playing in various nightspots, was written by Treni in 1978, well before the influx of so many talented women who have breathed into jazz a new life and diversity. The nimble solos are by soprano Sal Spicola, trombonist Philip Jones and trumpeter Chris Persad. It's always a pleasure to hear George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland," especially when performed by a world-class big band whose soloists are as sharp as trombonist Matt Bilyk and tenor Frank Elmo.

Spicola (alto) and Bergonzi (tenor) share solo duties on "Strayhorn," the first of two splendid charts by jazz educator / saxophonist Jerry Coker (the other is Billy Strayhorn's own composition, "U.M.M.G," which spotlights Bergonzi, pianist Charles Blenzig and alto Craig Yaremko). Rounding out the program are Treni's sensuous Latin-style ballad, "In My Quiet Time," his boisterous "What Is the World Coming To?" and perceptive arrangement of the standard "Here's That Rainy Day." Treni uses a string quartet on "Quiet Time" and "Rainy Day," blending Ken Hitchcock's alto flute on the former with earnest solos by Elmo (soprano) and bassist Takashi Otsuka. Hitchcock (tenor), Cutro, Yaremko and trombonist Bob Ferrel dazzle on "World," Blenzig and Treni on "Rainy Day," which opens temperately before morphing into an ebullient flag-waver.

If big bands are indeed dead (or at least comatose), why is it that outstanding ensembles such as Michael Treni's keep showing up? That's a question for the ages. Until someone works out a plausible answer, let's relax and enjoy the music.

Millennium Jazz Orchestra

Pretty Pumps

MJO
2012

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