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The Mike Vax Big Band: Live... On the Road

Jack Bowers By

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For anyone who missed the “big band era” and is wondering what all the fuss was about, the Mike Vax Big Band’s Live . . . On the Road should be required listening. In a more enlightened world it would be the music of choice for many others as well, but we’ll let that pass. Suffice to say that those who appreciate sharp and swinging big bands will surely dig this album, recorded during the ensemble’s East Coast tour nearly two years ago.

While Vax and many of his colleagues are alumni of the renowned Stan Kenton Orchestra, and several of the charts were taken from the Kenton book, the leader is quick to point out in the sleevenotes that “we are not a ‘ghost band’... [but] a living, breathing entity, and we take pride in the new, original music that we play while still staying in the ‘Kenton style’.” That style, as Kenton enthusiasts well know, embodied enormously demanding charts punctuated by varying rhythmic patterns, volcanic brass outbursts, virtuosic saxophone ripostes and vibrant solos by some of the finest improvisers in the business.

The MVBB ardently upholds that tradition while adding some new wrinkles of its own in the form of dynamic themes by trumpeter Steve Huffsteter (“Espania”) and saxophonists Kim Richmond (“Big Sur,” “Fall Ascending”), Bruce Johnstone (“Sunrise Lady”) and Joel Kaye (“Circe”) to complement eight classic charts from the Kenton library and one (“MacArthur Park”) associated with one of Stan’s many superlative lead trumpeters, Maynard Ferguson. (Speaking of which, I don’t know whose idea it was to have the band sing the chorus en masse but I’ve heard better ones.)

The band springs from the chute to overpower Johnny Richards’ bristling arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” (solos by Huffsteter, Richmond and tenor Pete Gallio, melody by trombonist Curtis Fox), after which the trombones gently introduce Dee Barton’s sensuous treatment of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” a charming platform for pianist Liz Sesler-Beckman and trumpeters Steve Campos (muted) and Vax. Richards’ “Nada Mas,” smartly arranged by Kaye to showcase tenor Bob Keller, precedes “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” the first of three exemplary charts by Bill Holman, on which Sesler-Beckman invokes the spirit of Kenton to jump-start electrifying solos by Campos and baritone Johnstone. Richmond (alto) is superb on his shimmering arrangement of “Everything Happens to Me,” as is Johnstone on the boisterous “Sunrise Lady.”

Holman’s seductive “Theme and Variations” is next, followed by Richmond’s stormy “Big Sur” (commentary by tenor Gallio and trumpeter Huffsteter, pyrotechnics courtesy of super-drummer Gary Hobbs and percussionist John Akal) and Kaye’s rhythmically lavish “Circe” (featuring Huffsteter, Richmond and trombonist Roy Wiegand). Barton arranged “MacArthur Park” (spurred toward the finish line by Akal’s bellowing countdown), Holman the irresistible Victor Scherzinger / Johnny Mercer standard, “I Remember You.” There’s more robust soloing on that one by Richmond and Huffsteter whose colorful “Epania,” which follows, spotlights Gallio’s expressive tenor. Richmond moves to soprano for his assertive “Fall Asending,” earmarking blowing space as well for Gallio, Huffsteter and trumpeter John Harner. And what more appropriate way to lower the curtain than to salute the man who inspired it all, the incomparable Stanley Newcomb Kenton, with an exhilarating rendition of Stan’s “Eager Beaver,” arranged for the MVBB by Dave Wolpe.

While nothing can approach the spine-tingling thrill and hair-raising excitement of actually seeing and hearing a band of this caliber in person, listening to it on a sonically agreeable compact disc (kudos to engineer Dave Clements) has to be the next best thing. As Stan himself would have announced in his thunderous baritone, “This is an orchestra!” And that says it all.

Contact: Summit Records, P. O. Box 26850, Tempe, AZ 85285 (phone 800–543–5156; e– mail sales@summitrecords.com. Web site, www.summitrecords.com).


Track Listing: Speak Low; Here

Personnel: Mike Vax, leader, trumpet; Dennis Noday, John Harner, Steve Huffsteter, Steve Campos, trumpet; Roy Wiegand, Dale DeVoe, Curtis Fox, Kenny Shroyer, Mike Suter, trombone; Kim Richmond, Pete Gallio, Bob Keller, Bruce Johnstone, Joel Kaye, reeds; Liz Sesler-Beckman, piano; Jim Widner, bass; Gary Hobbs, drums; John Akal, Latin percussion. Also, Dave Detweiler, trumpet; Mark Gruen, bass.

Title: Live... On the Road | Year Released: 2003

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