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Keith Pray's Big Soul Ensemble: Live at the Lark Tavern

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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There's something marvelously intimate and involving about hearing a swinging big band live in a smaller venue. It can be let-inhibitions-go dark, bump-elbow tight and, with food and drink circling about, noisy. Perhaps the big concert (big bucks?) format of the Radio Cities, Symphony Halls or Lincoln Centers—the stuff seen on PBS (American Public Television)—slightly diminishes the experience when compared with the intensity, the sense of involvement, even the funkiness and soul of the small venue live performance.

Live at the Lark Tavern is an excellent example of a cooking big band in a cozy, cooking set-up—a live throwback to the Metropoles, the Cork 'n' Bibs, the Blue Notes and Birdlands, and all the many other small clubs coast-to-coast that are now only ghosts.

Big Soul Ensemble's leader, Keith Pray, is an energetically inventive and soulful alto saxophonist, and has his merry men full steam ahead on these nine excellent selections. The band, primarily musicians from New York's Capital District Area and its environs, would rival any similar group downstate in the Apple, or elsewhere, for that matter. It might even swing more than some.

The selections are all originals and the slick arrangements frame the soloists in a positive way. Pray's solo approach is highly intelligent and indeed Julian "Cannonball" Adderley soulful. Tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude, a player whose playing style is from the Michael Brecker/Ernie Watts tenor lineage, launches off magnificently on extended solo forays like "Change." These two woodwind artists dominate the solo—or is it "Soul-Oh?"—side of the Pray ensemble equation.

The arrangements, five of which are Pray's (The suite-like "The Gate" with a nice tuba touch) and others from Yuko Yashimoto (the modal "Yet to Come" and "Elements") are intelligent, technically challenging, and provide ample platforms for ensemble, section and soloists. The writing is classic blues-oriented straight-ahead swinging big band in the Woody Herman/Buddy Rich mold. It works impressively well in the small venue live environment.

The Pray ensemble plays just-so tight—perfectly swinging, never too tense or overly restrained. The no-net live format certainly highlights and spotlights the quality of musicianship here; first class and no eponymous lark.

Outstanding lead trumpeter Scott Thompson seems to bring hints of a Bill Chase or Lin Biviano, screaming over the band and audience alike on "Transfiguration" and "The Other Funk." Section mate Steve Lambert solos intelligently, as does trombonist Rick Rosoff. The rhythm section, driven by drummer Bob Halek and bassist Lou Smaldone, propels the group nicely throughout ("Walkin' the Dog").

As for the production values? Excellent, especially for a live venue.

Big Band in a small venue? Keith Pray's Soul Ensemble might dwell in the comfy-cozy Lark Tavern, but, the sounds here are bursting "beyond the bar." This is a highly engaging big band CD by leader Pray and his very loaded-with-it soul mates.

Track Listing: Elements; Walkin' the Dog; Transconfiguration; Renee; The Other Funk; I Remember Roland; Yet to Come; The Gate ( A Portrait of the Mohawk); Change.

Personnel: Keith Pray: alto sax, soprano sax; Dave Fisk: also sax; Katie Pray: alto sax (3, 4, 7); Brian Patneaude: tenor sax; Lee Russo: tenor sax; Scott Hall: baritone sax; Scott Thompson: trumpet; Terry Gordon: trumpet; Sam Ponder: trumpet; Steve Lambert: trumpet; Dylan Canterbury: trumpet; Rick Rosoff: trombone; Ken Olsen: trombone; Brian Kaplan: trombone; Adam Streeter: tuba; Dave Gleason; piano; Yuko Kishimoto piano (1); Lou Smaldone: bass; Bob Halek: drums.

Title: Live at the Lark Tavern | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Self Produced


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