What makes a great big band record? Is it the writing or the arranging? Or maybe it is the playing of the musicians, which of course is the product of both the writing and the arranging.
Certainly a big band (like, say, a quartet) produces great music when it performs regularly as a working unit. For composer/arranger/guitarist Jade Synstelien, the opportunity to present big band jazz every week at New York's Fat Cat jazz club to upwards of a thousand listeners at a time yields the results heard here.
This extraordinary effort began with Synstelien's move to New York in 2001. His 11-piece Staring Into The Sun Orchestra took on the name of this ten thousand square foot pool hall, that became the spillover club for the aptly named Small's jazz club. During the summer of 2008, Synstelien and his big band recorded 31 original tunes which will ultimately be released on three CDs. The music is infused with the jazz tradition once requisite for all big bands. The music had to make listeners want to shake their derriere and this recording surely does.
The 11 musicians limit their solos here; instead, they mesh solos tightly within the clever arrangements. Synstelien has the knack of steering a big band like a much smaller outfitturning phrases quickly and dosing out the power of his band in a most understated way. The opening "Samantha Swing" begins with Synstelien's solo guitar spilling into what could be a Les Brown dance track for the '60s. Synstelien's music has a knowledge of the dance band tradition with the snark of Charles Mingus' writing. His "F*ck The Man (Please Vote)" sprints along as a bebop burner before the chant of "boo George Bush," "boo Nazi fascist supremacist" and "boo Klu Klux Klan" are shouted. In between there are frugal and spare solos by musicians that one day will become household names.
So what does make a big band special? Is it the writing, arranging or performance? In the case of the Fat Cat Big Band, the answer is yes, yes, and yes.
Track Listing: Samantha Swing; Prayer For Togetherness (Kimana); Phil Stewart Figures Out Ofer Landsberg Playin
Personnel: Jade Synstelien: electric guitar, vocals; Phil Stewart: drums; Ben Meigners: bass; Jack Glottman: piano; Stacy Dillard: tenor saxophone; Geoff Vidal: tenor saxophone; Tatum Greenblatt: trumpet; Brandon Lee: trumpet; Jonathan Voltzok: trombone; Max Seigel: bass trombone; Sharel Cassity: alto saxophone.