A glance at the name and song titles on Chris McDonald's new album might lead to an assumption that this is a Christian manifesto masquerading as big-band jazz, when in fact the reverse is trueMcDonald, a superlative arranger, happens to be a man of faith who uses Christian themes as the basis for some of the most powerful and exhilarating big-band music you're likely to hear anywhere. This is in every respect the Chris McDonald JAZZ Orchestra, and the emphasis is first, last and always on jazz. Even a mournful serenade such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" abides here beneath a luminous Latin canopy, a rhythmic launching pad for blistering solos by tenor Jeff Coffin, trombonist Barry Greene and trumpeter Steve Patrick.
For funk, there's "Little Brown Church in the Bayou" or "Were You There?," for sheer velocity "Gimme Dat!" (as in "Old-Time Religion") or "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" Nor are the melodious "Crown Him" or "Li'l Darlin'"-like finale, "Holy, Holy," any less persuasive. Even the vocalistsGary Janney (the moralizing "Fairest Lord Jesus"), Melinda Doolittle ("What the World Needs Now"), Scat Springs ("Go Down, Moses")are generally praiseworthy, thanks in large measure to McDonald's splendid charts, on the first two of which the ensemble is enlarged to near-Metropole Orchestra size with the addition of a fifteen-member string section.
"Circle" opens the studio date on a volatile plateau as it introduces soloists Green and guitarist Pat Bergeson. Soprano Mark Douthit is showcased on McDonald's clever arrangement of "Battle Hymn" (of the Republic), while pianist Stephen Kummer, trumpeter Rod McGaha, Douthit (alto) and trombonist Roy Agee offer testimony in the "Little Brown Church." Trumpeter Jim Williamson and tenor Doug Moffet share the pulpit on "Gimme Dat!," Douthit and pianist Pat Coil on "Holy, Holy," Moffet and McGaha on "Were You There?"
Setting aside the sectarian agenda, this is exemplary big-band jazz flawlessly performed by a world-class ensemble. As its title denotes, there are No Pews Required to hear and appreciate how Chris McDonald uses hymns and other canonical themes to advance the cause of big-band jazz. Simply listen and enjoy.
Track Listing: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?; Battle Hymn; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; Fairest Lord Jesus; Little Brown Church in the Bayou; What the World Needs Now; Gimme Dat!; Go Down, Moses; Were You There?; Crown Him; Holy, Holy, Holy.
Personnel: Chris McDonald, leader, arranger, trombone; Steve Patrick: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tyler Mire: trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Haynes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jeff Bailey: trumpet, flugelhorn (1-4, 7, 9-11); Mike Casteel: trumpet, flugelhorn (5, 6, 8); Mark Douthit: alto, soprano sax; Kenny Anderson: alto sax; Jimmy Bowland: tenor sax, piccolo; Doug Moffet: tenor sax; Jeff Coffin: tenor, baritone sax; Barry Green: trombone; Roger Bissell: trombone (3-6, 8, 9); Roy Agee: trombone (1, 2, 7, 10, 11); Ernie Collins: bass trombone; Pat Coil: piano, Hammond B3 organ (1, 2, 7, 10, 11); Stephen Kummer, piano (3-6, 8, 9); Paul Brannon: guitar; Craig Nelson: bass; Bob Mater: drums (1, 2, 5-8, 10, 11); Scott Williamson: drums (3, 4, 9); Glen Caruba: percussion; Gary Janney: vocal (4); Melinda Doolittle: vocal (6); Scat Springs: vocal (8); Pamela Sixfin: violin; Conni Ellisor: violin; David Davidson: violin; Mary Kathryn VanOsdale: violin; Alan Umstead: violin; Carrie Bailey: violin; Erin Hall: violin; Cathy Umstead: violin; Alison Gooding: violin; James Grosjean: viola; Monisa Angell: viola; Elizabeth Lamb: viola; Anthony LaMarchina: cello; Julie Tanner: cello; Carole Rabinowitz: cello; Kyla Jade, Elizabeth White, Blair Johnson: backing vocals. Special guests — Rod McGaha: trumpet; Jim Williamson: trumpet; Pat Bergeson: guitar, harmonica.