For me, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra has been an acquired taste. I was less enamored than others with its first two releases, Groove Shop and Heart and Soul, but since then the orchestra has produced a series of winners (Absolutely!, Explosive!, Shout Me Out) and marks its twentieth anniversary with what is arguably its most impressive album to date, Live at MCG (Manchester Craftsmen's Guild).
One reason for the steady improvement is consistency; several of these gentlemen have been with the orchestra from the beginning, others almost that long. Another is that co-leader John Clayton, who wrote all the charts, is clearly a more seasoned and resourceful arranger than he was twenty years ago. A third is that the rhythm section, superbly piloted by co-leader and drummer Jeff Hamilton, has become one of the best in the business thanks to the addition of pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty (John Clayton generally limits his input these days to composing, arranging and conducting, even though his supple arco bass is featured alone on "Nature Boy and in tandem with Luty on Ellington's "Mood Indigo"). The apparently ageless Snooky Young remains at the heart of the orchestra's blue-chip trumpet section (now led by the hardworking Bijon Watson), while the third co-leader, Jeff Clayton, supervises its synchronous reeds and Ira Nepus does the same for the trombones.
"Georgia, one of the late Ray Charles' signature songs, requires an abundance of soul, and is given plenty to spare by tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard (misspelled "Woodward throughout) who plays with the fire and intensity of such Texas tenor titans as Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. Woodard is smokin' again on the spirited finale, Johnny Hodges' "Squatty Roo, with Hendelman, Hamilton, trombonist George Bohanon and trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Gilbert Castellanos. In between is a galaxy of highlights including Horace Silver's "Jody Grind, snappy salutes to Horace ("Silver Celebration ) and Count Basie ("Captain Bill ), a seductive arrangement for trio and orchestra of "Lullaby of the Leaves, Thelonious Monk's "Evidence, Sonny Stitt's "Eternal Triangle and a gentle feature for Young (muted) and Jeff Clayton (soprano), Dori Caymmi's "Like a Lover.
The "other trumpets (Jenkins, Castellanos, Watson, Sal Cracchiolo) are showcased on the quirky "Evidence, the saxophones (altos Jeff Clayton and Keith Fiddmont, tenors Woodard and Charles Owens, baritone Lee Callet) on "Eternal Triangle. Bohanon and Hendelman are eloquent on "Leaves, as are Hendelman, Luty and Owens on "Captain Bill, Hendelman, Nepus and Owens on "Mood Indigo.
A superlative concert performance by one of the country's leading big bands. I've no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who appreciates good music. Sound is admirable, and please note the generous 73:12 playing time.
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