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Nova Jazz Orchestra / Christian McBride Big Band / NYJO

Jack Bowers By

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Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra

Who Sez You Can't Dance to Bebop?

Nova Jazz

2010

When last heard from, Minnesota's dauntless Nova Jazz Orchestra was performing alongside the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra—well, not actually "alongside," but as part of the Tantara label's ongoing two-disc salute to Kenton, Double Feature, Vol. 2. On that occasion, Nova was playing (and playing quite well) music written for but never recorded by the Kenton Orchestra, whereas on its eighth and latest CD, Nova turns its attention to themes by Minnesota composers, four of whom are members of the ensemble.

Albeit a small step or so removed talent-wise from the country's most celebrated big bands, Nova has come a long way since its first recording, In Walked Wendy, and Who Sez You Can't Dance to Bebop? is in many respects its most admirable effort to date, starting with alto saxophonist Kari Musil's engaging title song, a bop-tempered burner whose Latin subtext has "let's dance" written all over it. As is usually the case, what places Nova slightly behind its contemporaries are the soloists, most of whom are quite respectable but none of whom is likely to turn any heads or raise any eyebrows. Not a reproach, merely a fact. (Almost) everything else is above par, and the ensemble meshes well as a unit.

Speaking of bebop, there is one more bop-centered tune on the menu, alto Bob Byers' carefree "Chasin' the Dolphin" (down a well-known street known to be frequented by green-hued members of the species). "Dolphin" immediately precedes the boisterous finale, "Expecting Tom Boogie," a dynamic blues in the lower register with thunderous solos by baritones Mike Krikava and Paul Peterson, bass saxophonist Bill Burton and some boogie / stride piano by Bruce Pedalty. For a change of pace there are two ballads, and each is quite handsome: Peterson's "That's How I Know" (featuring trombonist Mike Larson) and Greg Stinson's "Ruya's Dream" (solos by flugel John Ahern, tenor Peterson, pianist Pedalty). That covers half the numbers. The others are Stinson's fast-moving, Mulliganesque "Expedition," Byers' rhythmically strong "To the Source," John Guari's lustrous "Meresque," Dan Cavanagh's dreamy "Having Built in Deeper Water" and Musil's quirky "Reincarnation of Queen Irene" (a tribute to the composer's grandmother). Besides those already named, soloists heard from more than once are Byers, guitarist John Hyvarinen and drummer Dave Perry. Guest tenor Sten M. Johnson is splendid on "Who Sez," guest cellist Michelle Kinney much less so on "Queen Irene."

As noted, qualifiers such as "in many respects" and "almost" have been inserted when gauging the album's merit, and the reason for their use is lies in the quality of the recording itself, which is by and large unimpressive. The sound here has a pinched, almost monaural timbre, as opposed to the wide open stereo ambiance of most contemporary recordings, even those produced in a studio. As a result, separation among the sections is compromised, while soloists seem to be using the same microphone (which may have been the case). Once past that hindrance, however, there is much to weigh and appreciate, as Nova continues to gain ground in its steady rise toward parity with the best modern-day jazz orchestras.

Christian McBride Big Band

The Good Feeling

Mack Avenue

2012

All of a sudden, it seems, mature and well-known bassists are stepping out of the shadows, so to speak, to become leaders of their own big bands: first came septuagenarian Ron Carter, and now the relatively youthful Christian McBride (age thirty-eight). Hopefully, this signals a trend—or, at the very least, a sign that these veteran musicians either haven't heard or don't believe that big bands are supposed to be dead. In McBride's case, as he confesses in his entertaining liner notes, the desire to become a big-band arranger was always there but was no more than a dream until 1995 when Wynton Marsalis asked him to write something for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. When McBride said he might not be up to the task, Wynton shrugged off his plea, and McBride, in his words, "had no choice. I had to figure out how to write for a big band . . . and fast!" And so he did, with the help of some friends, a number of textbooks and his own musical proficiency.

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