Apparently, Australian trombonist Ed Wilson’s big band comes in two delectable flavors, “regular” and “wacky.” Having already reviewed a splendid new CD, Song for Joel, by the regular ensemble, we now turn our gaze toward the wackier group. Unlike its staid counterpart, the Wacky Big Band employs the services of a vocalist, Jeff Duff, on seven of the seventeen selections in this June ’02 concert performance. The group also accommodates other vocals by Marty Hill (“Running Bear”) and seventeen “very wacky” musicians (“Teddy Bears’ Picnic”). What one senses immediately is that the band’s revue at the South Sydney Leagues Club was pure fun, as much visual as aural. That means, alas, that half the mirth has gone missing as one can hear the band and audience reaction, but can’t also see what is taking place onstage which, according to Sylvia Raye and Mark Bowden’s liner notes, lays bare “a carnival atmosphere . . . modern vaudeville . . . fast, furious and chaotic.” One observation that brooks no argument is that Wilson’s ensemble, wacky or no, is sharp, well-rehearsed and highly professional. Tackling offbeat material and charts (most by Wilson) that would challenge even the most seasoned bands, these gentlemen never once drop the ball, in spite of costume changes, comedy bits and various hijinks designed to entertain an audience and keep the customers coming back for more.
After a shaky start on “Mack the Knife,” Duff, an audacious, swaggering former punk rockerand a snazzy cross-dresser, according to the album’s bookletquickly reclaims his balance. He's quite impressive on “Bad Habits” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and really hits his stride on “Mr. Bojangles” and “I’m a Believer” (abetted on the latter by full-time saxophonist and part-time “preacher” David Glyde). For someone with his free-spirited resumé, Duff seems not the least bit out of place or uncomfortable in front of a rafter-rattling Jazz ensemble. Meanwhile, the orchestra knifes through such uncommon fare as Chuck Mangione’s “Children of Sanchez,” Henry Mancini’s theme from “Peter Gunn,” Wilson’s “Take It Easy” and the gospel tune “This Ol’ House” while meticulously revising two chapters from the Maynard Ferguson library, “Birdland” and “MacArthur Park.” Duff sings the anthem “Advance Australia Fair,” and there are marvelous arrangements by Wilson of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (combined with “Dixie,” or as the Aussies prefer, “Glory, Glory to South Sydney”) and the traditional “Waltzing Matilda” before those “seventeen wacky musicians” ring down the curtain with a brief but whimsical version of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (wish we could have seen that one). As we’ve remarked often that big bands (and Jazz groups as a whole) should be entertaining as well as hip, Ed Wilson’s Wacky Big Band warrants an enthusiastic thumbs-up, even though a video would have been even more delightful (the photos on the album cover and insert are positively tantalizing).
Track Listing: Children of Sanchez; Mack the Knife; Peter Gunn; Bad Habits; Take It
Easy; Bad, Bad Leroy Brown; Birdland; Minnie the Moocher; This Ol
Personnel: Ed Wilson, leader, trombone; Jeff Duff, vocals; Trevor Griffin, Casey
Greene, David Glyde, Marty Hill, Steve Fitzmaurice, reeds; Danny May,
Ross Connors, Anthony Gulick, Ralph Pyl, Tim Egan, trumpet; Anthony
Bartlett, Mark Barnsley, Mark Brown, trombone; Rod Herbert, bass
trombone; Tony Gardner, piano; Saul Richardson, guitar; David Clayton,
bass; John Morrison, drums; Esther Wilson, percussion.
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