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Geoff Stradling: Nimble Digits

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Geoff Stradling: Nimble Digits
Remember the good old days when bandleaders would give a downbeat and their bands would start swinging and keep on doing so until their audiences literally begged for more? Welcome to the past—present tense—courtesy of pianist Geoff Stradling's superb Los Angeles-based StradBand, which swings heartily and with seldom a pause on its radiant and power-laden introductory album, Nimble Digits.

Yes, the album does swing—more than thirty of the L.A. area's most accomplished musicians make sure of that—but if swing were all, the enterprise could easily be dismissed as repetitious and one-dimensional. What sets the session apart and makes it worth hearing and appreciating more than once are Stradling's superlative charts, which span the gamut from blues to ballad, burners to Latin beats, and are never less than bright and pleasurable. Stradling, who started writing big-band charts when he was a high-school student in the mid-1970s, composed all but one song on Nimble Digits (the lovely "Poinciana") and arranged everything.

The StradBand, which has been performing in the Los Angeles area almost since it was formed in 2010, had been unable to record before now because of economics. But after the pandemic struck, Stradling decided it was now or never, launched a KickStarter campaign to help finance the venture, and was able to raise enough money to underwrite the album. Anyone who samples the finished product should be extremely grateful that Stradling and the band persevered, as this is big-band jazz of the highest order, worthy of comparison to such hallowed names as Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman,Artie Shaw, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich and others.

The StradBand gets right down to business with "Blue Note," a charming blues-based salute to that once-prominent jazz label and drummer Art Blakey's tenure there from 1959-67. Stradling solos first, followed by alto Alex Budman and trumpeter Barbara Laronga. The colorful "Brecker Sketch," which follows, is described by Stradling as "a 'non-chronological trip' through [tenor saxophonist] Michael Brecker's history." Tenor Glen Berger sits in for Brecker, who left us far too soon in 2007, with other solos by bassist Bruce Lett and trombonist Ryan Dragon. "Poinciana" is next, and any resemblance to pianist Ahmad Jamal's classic recording is quickly brushed aside as the band sprints ahead at full throttle, underlining sharp solos by Stradling, alto Tom Luer and trumpeter Stan Martin.

"Nimble Digits," aptly described by Stradling as the album's "traditional flag-waver" (at 280 beats per minute), severely tests soloists Scott Whitfield (trombone), Kye Palmer (trumpet), Budman (soprano) and Adam Alesi (drums)—all of whom pass with flying colors, as does the StradBand whose counterpoint and dynamics are typically breathtaking. Budman's evocative clarinet takes center stage on the Latin-grooved, minor-key "Baton Noir," which leads to the album's lone ballad, "Here in Spirit," an homage to the classic Miles Davis-Gil Evans partnerships, with Laronga (muted, of course) subbing for Miles and bass clarinetist Tim McKay also soloing.

Swing returns with a vengeance on "Don't Shoot the Messenger," a spirited tribute to pianist Cedar Walton's "Bolivia" with solos to match by trumpeter Palmer, trombonist Francisco Torres, tenor Kirsten Edkins and conguero Kristin Olson—not to mention marvellous rhythmic support from Lett and Alesi. The dynamic, Latin-based "Iguacu" is best described as inclusive, with Stradling moving to the Osmos synthesizer and tenors Jeff Driskill and Dan Kaneyuki trading well-aimed volleys as the band roars its approval.

"Wrap Party" is next, its swing/funk groove underlined by the band and balanced by Aaron Janik's gossamer electric trumpet and Edkins' creamy soprano sax. "Wrap Party" does not wrap things up; that is left to the high-flying "Habanero," another Latinized cooker with even more impressive unison work by the band and heated solos from McKay (on baritone), Luer (flute), trombonist Erik Hughes, trumpeters Matt Fronke and Javier Gonzalez, and Joey De Leon on timbales. As is suitable for an album such as this, the trumpet section has the last word, "shouting" the session to its dramatic conclusion.

There are times when the description of an album is destined to fall short, as mere words are insufficient to accomplish the task. This is one of those times. To state that Nimble Digits is far and away the most impressive big-band album of the year is a good start but hardly enough; the proof is in the listening, which is why that is explicitly endorsed.

Track Listing

Blue Note; Brecker Sketch (in memoriam Michael Brecker); Poinciana; Nimble Digits; Baton Noir; Here in Spirit; Don’t Shoot the Messenger; Iguaçu; Wrap Party; Habanero.

Personnel

Phil Feather
saxophone
Kirsten Edkins
saxophone, tenor
Tim McKay
saxophone, baritone
Kye Palmer
trumpet
Additional Instrumentation

Jeff Driskill: woodwinds; Dan Kaneyuki: tenor sax; Tom Luer: flute, alto sax; Glen Berger: tenor sax; Matt Fronke: trumpet, flugelhorn; Stan Martin: trumpet, flugelhorn; Rob Schaer: trumpet; Aaron Janik: trumpet; Dave Richards: trombone; Erm Navarro: trombone; Lori Stuntz: trombone; Juliane Gralle: bass trombone; Ryan Dragon: trombone; Erik Hughes: trombone; Francisco Torres: trombone; Scott Whitfield: trombone; Bruce Lett: acoustic & electric basses; Cooper Appelt: electric bass; Ross Schodek: electric bass; Kristin Olson: percussion; Michael Spiro: percussion; Joey De Leon: percussion; Nate Werth: bata.

Album information

Title: Nimble Digits | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Origin Records


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