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The Les Brown All-Stars: Mike's Peak

Jack Bowers By

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The Les Brown All-Stars are actually three groups—the Dave Pell Octet, Ronny Lang Saxtet and Don Fagerquist Nonet—comprised for the most part of members or alumni of Brown's popular and long-lived Band of Renown and encircling on this anthology from the mid-'50s three numbers by Zoot Sims' older brother, trombonist Ray, with string section. Pell's group, the precursor of the others, is heard on eight tracks, Fagerquist's on four, Lang's on three.

Pell, who joined Brown's band in 1948, formed his crowd-pleasing octet five years later. While the first group was made up entirely of personnel from the Band of Renown, others soon were enlisted, such as baritone saxophonist Bob Gordon, pianist Paul Smith and bassist Joe Mondragon, who are among the performers here. Pell is the common denominator in all three groups, manning the front line with Gordon and tenor giants Sims and Bill Holman in Fagerquist's nine-piece ensemble, with altos Lang and Bob Drasnin in the former's Saxtet.

The music, much of it taken from the Great American Songbook and neatly arranged by the likes of Holman, Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers and Wes Hensel, never strays far from Brown's dance-oriented philosophy (as Pell says, music that was "danceable and yet still had a jazz feel ). It's cheerful music that swings breezily along behind buoyant solos by Pell and the others. Pell, a remarkably durable musician who made his professional debut in 1941 and recorded his most recent album, Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse, about a year ago, plays a "happy tenor that would put a smile on almost anyone's face. If you've heard Zoot or Bob Cooper, the tenors who perhaps came closest to Pell in style and temperament, if not in sound, you'll know what I mean.

There is one sizable drawback—make that two. The numbers by Lang's Saxtet and trombonist Sims (six of the album's eighteen tracks) were no doubt transferred directly to disc from well-worn vinyl albums (and I do mean well-worn!), and the horrendous surface noise and distortion makes them unlistenable. In my view, piling garbage like that on an otherwise entertaining compact disc is inexcusable.

What we are left with is two-thirds of an album worth hearing, hardly enough to earn an endorsement, even with three luminous solos by Zoot and earnest comments by Pell, Fagerquist, Gordon, guitarist Tony Rizzi and pianist Donn Trenner. Nice music, but one shouldn't have to dig through the trash to find it.


Track Listing: Mike

Personnel: Dave Pell Octet: Dave Pell: tenor saxophone; Don Fagerquist: trumpet; Bob Gordon: baritone saxophone; Ray Sims: trombone; Tony Rizzi: guitar; Paul Smith: piano; Joe Mondragon: bass; Jack Sperling: drums. Ronny Lang Sextet: Ronny Lang, Bob Drasnin: alto saxophone; Dave Pell: tenor saxophone; Donn Trenner: piano; Buddy Clark: bass; Bill Richmond: drums. Don Fagerquist Nonet: Don Fagerquist: trumpet; Zoot Sims, Bill Holman, Dave Pell: tenor saxophone; Bob Gordon: baritone saxophone; Donn Trenner: piano; Vernon Polk: guitar; Buddy Clark: bass; Bill Richmond: drums.

Title: Mike's Peak | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Group 7 Music

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