Laying the tracks from Stratospheric, a Los Angeles Jazz Institute four-day celebration of the career of trumpeter/bandleader Maynard Ferguson, former alumni Don Menza directs his own big band on the live recording Menza Lines. The album, the second for the Menza Big Band after the well-regarded Burnin (1981), was recorded at the LAX Four Points Sheraton Hotel in 2004. It's a big band album without a wall-to-wall big band sound. While solo performances are a characteristic of all ensemble recordings, they are the meat of this dish. As Menza says in the liner notes, "...Guys like to play on my band because they know there's going to be room to play...."
The opener, Gene Ammons' bluesy "Gravy (aka Walkin)," is introduced with a piano solo by Mike Abene, which is followed up by Russ D' Alba on alto and Jack Nimitz on baritone saxophone. A crowd pleaser and a favorite of mine, "Nina Never Knew" is a sweet and lovely slow ballad that is all Don Menza, with a magnificent and emotional tenor solo.
"T'n'T" is a swinging piece that showcases an excellent trombone section, which includes Bill Reichenbach and John Hasselback and features solos by Bob McChesney and Alex Iles. The music takes a turn toward Brazil with the melancholy "Faviana," fourteen minutes of woodwind wonder introduced by Mark Waggoner's guitar solo. Altoist Lanny Morgan, another former Ferguson alumnus, burns the charts on "Hark' The Harold," another swinging tune.
The rhythm section takes over the music on the downtempo bebop piece "Broad Bottom," which features Chris Conner's bass accompanied by Nimitz' bass clarinet, along with Reichenbach on bass trombone and Abene on piano. Another ballad with a Menza arrangement, the sensitive "Prelude To A Kiss," is beautifully interpreted through the trumpet play of Bobby Shew and an interlude by Abene, once again.
Last but certainly not least is the leader's fine "Time To Leave," on which Menza wails on sax through two choruses that leave you wanting more. The band plays some real powerful backup on this one. The plentiful, stylish, and tasteful solos throughout this recording mark Menza Lines as a special album. No question about it, the Don Menza Big Band provides an enchanting, pleasurable, and riveting musical experience tailor-made for lovers of the big band sound.
Gravy (aka Walkin); Nina Never Knew; T'n'T; Faviana; Hark' the Harold; Broad Bottom;
Prelude to a Kiss; Time to Leave (70:49).
Don Menza: leader, tenor saxophone; Chuck Findley, Bobby Shew, Don Rader, Ron King,
Frank Szabo: trumpet; Bill Reichenbach, Alex Iles, Bob McChesney, John Hasselback:
trombone; Lanny Morgan, Russ D'Alba, Doug Webb, Tom Peterson, Jack Nimitz: reeds;
Mike Abene: piano; Chris Conner: bass; Mark Waggoner: guitar; Mike Stephans: drums.