There was a time not long ago when most big bands fell more or less into fairly well-defined cubicles. There were, for example, those that were best known as dance bands (Glenn Miller, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, Artie Shaw, Ray Anthony and so on), and, on the other hand, those whose raison d'etre was jazz and swing (Basie, Herman, Kenton, Barnet, Thornhill and their peers). That was then; this is now. Like it or not, bands these days literally approach the listening audience from All Angles, mapping out musical blueprints that may unsettle one's inbred receptors as they dive boldly into new and sometimes uncharted waters.
Composer / arranger / trombonist Mike Conrad's New Angle is one that has been embarked upon before with varying degrees of success: a fusion of jazz and classical elements designed to frame a palette of sound that devotees of both genres may find pleasing. It's a taut and ticklish balancing act, as there must be enough of the jazz and classical ingredients to keep champions of both genres reasonably engaged and happy. Conrad leads with broad instrumentation, stocking the classical component with woodwinds, a string quartet, oboe, English horn, melodica and even a marimba (the first voice heard on the opening "New Angle"), and assures the jazz presence with trumpet, flugelhorn, guitar, piano, bass and drums, reinforced by tenor saxophonist Kenyon Brenner (on two numbers) and especially guest trumpeter Alex Sipiagin (on three).
Conrad composed half of the album's eight selections, trumpeter Greg Weis a pair ("To the Summit," "Vermilion Skies"), while pianist Tom Amend wrote the elegiac finale, "Uncommon Valor." The remaining number is Cole Porter's enduring standard, "What Is This Thing Called Love," tastefully arranged by Conrad and enclosing crisp solos by Amend and Sipiagin (who is also showcased on "New Angle" and "Uncommon Valor"). Joe Darpino's marimba and Matt Landon's guitar set a light-hearted mood on the opener, whose aura is enhanced by Sipiagin and drummer Ryan Leppich as the strings have their say as well. The horns are muted on Conrad's groovy, Mancini-like "KaBlooz!," which leads "To the Summit," whose vibrant rhythms are introduced by the strings and reinforced by Brenner's expressive tenor and Landon's guitar. The easygoing "Vermilion Skies" enwraps handsome statements by Amend and bassist Seth Lewis, while Conrad's "Berceuse" and "2020" scrupulously blend the elements of classical and jazz to ensure that neither is overshadowed by the other. Conrad's rarely heard melodica is pivotal on "Berceuse," London's guitar and Amend's piano on "2020."
When all is played and strummed, there can be no doubt that Conrad and his bisected ensemble have accomplished what they set out to do, which is to offer prospective listeners a fresh New Angle with respect to "classical" jazz. In doing so, they have cooked up a wholesome entree for the open-minded.
New Angle, KaBlooz!, To the Summit, Vermilion Skies, What is This Thing Called
Love?, Berceuse, 2020, Uncommon Valor
Mike Conrad: leader, conductor, trombone, melodica; Alex Sipiagin: trumpet,
flugelhorn; Kenyon Brenner: tenor saxophone; Justin Cook: flute; Veronica Lovely:
oboe, english horn; Darrel Watson: bass clarinet, clarinet; Greg Weis: trumpet,
flugelhorn; Kerrie Pitts: horn; John Mathews: bass trombone, tuba; Ching-Hsuan
Wang: violin, Gina Buzzelli: violin; Tyler McKisson: viola; Katarina Pliego: cello; Joe
Darpino: percussion; Matt Landon: guitar; Tom Amend: piano; Seth Lewis: bass; Ryan
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