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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.

What McBride produced for the LCJO was "Bluesin' in Alphabet City," one of eleven numbers on the band's debut album, The Good Feeling. It's a shuffling blues (with mere traces of Nat Adderley's "Work Song") in the key of A ("for alphabet," McBride notes) and shows that even as a novice, McBride knew what he was doing. Even so, he has come a long way since then, as is clear in charts of a more recent vintage such as "Shake 'n Blake," "Broadway," "In a Hurry" "The Shade of the Cedar Tree" and the standard "I Should Care." McBride arranged three more standards as vehicles for singer Melissa Walker who is agreeably innocuous on "When I Fall in Love," "The More I See You" and "A Taste of Honey." On the other hand, the studio session's longest track, "Science Fiction" (11:46) is, to these ears, the least persuasive (albeit the most adventurous) of McBride's charts, even though it enwraps virile solos by alto Todd Bashore and pianist Xavier Davis (who lends yeoman support throughout, as does drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.).

Speaking of soloists, others who seize the moment are tenor Ron Blake, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and trombonist Michael Dease ("Shake 'n Blake"), Payton and alto Steve Wilson ("Brother Mister"), Payton and Blake ("Cedar Tree"), Payton and tenor Loren Schoenberg ("I Should Care"), Payton, Blake, Dease, Owens and trombonist Steve Davis ("Bluesin'"), Blake and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix ("In a Hurry"). As for McBride, his always exemplary bass is the marquee draw on "Broadway" and out front again on "Shake 'n Blake," "I Should Care," "Bluesin'" and (arco) the aptly named "In a Hurry." While McBride's maiden voyage as leader of his own band leaves the door open for even more admirable enterprises to come, The Good Feeling here is explicit from start to finish, McBride and his colleagues play with energy and enthusiasm, and the collaborative effort earns high marks all round. [Note: Shortly before this review was submitted for publication, The Good Feeling earned a Grammy award for Best Performance by a Large Ensemble.]

NYJO

A Christmas Carol in Six Movements

Stanza Music

2012

While views of and approaches to various Christmas holiday traditions may vary widely from country to country and even town to town, one opinion seems to be near-unanimous—that Charles Dickens is the author of the most heartwarming and memorable seasonal novel ever written, namely A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, among the most unforgettable characters in all of literature, is the embodiment of unbridled avarice and unconditional redemption, transformed literally overnight from irredeemable misanthrope to lover of mankind by the spirits of Christmas past, present and future. Dickens depicted Scrooge's metamorphosis in transcendent prose, but could the spirit of his classic narrative possibly be captured and set to music? That was the question posed by Bill Ashton, director emeritus of Great Britain's intrepid National Youth Jazz Orchestra, to ace arranger / composer Paul Hart in the summer of 2009. NYJO, Ashton said, needed something special for a television arts program set to air that November, and wondered if Hart might be willing to write a suite based on Dickens' timeless story of depravity and deliverance. Hart, whose Out of Hamelin suite for NYJO, based on "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning, had met with some success, agreed to have a go at it. That was the easy part.

Pressed for time and writing feverishly, Hart drafted a six-part suite embracing the main themes of Dickens' novel, from Scrooge's brusque dismissal of the holiday sentiment ("Bah Humbug!") to his encounter with the anguished specter of his late partner ("The Ghost of Marley"), his harrowing liaisons with the spirits of Christmas past, present and future ("We Three Spooks"), his heart-wrenching memories of what might have been ("Long Forgotten"), his measured awareness of clerk Bob Cratchitt's crippled son ("Tiny Tim") and Tim's selfless invocation to everyone including his father's miserly overseer, Ebenezer Scrooge ("God Bless Us Everyone!"). Although the television program was canceled, Hart delivered the suite on time, and it was rehearsed and eventually recorded (in January 2010) at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, presumably live but with any audible sign of an audience erased except for the final movement, which is greeted at the end by enthusiastic applause.

Thematic or not, this is absolutely marvelous big-band writing, superbly performed by NYJO's twenty-two member ensemble (plus vocalists Emma Smith and Kwabena Adjepong on "God Bless Us Everyone!"). "Bah Humbug!" is a straight-ahead burner in the finest big-band tradition with blistering solos by soprano saxophonist Lucas Dodd, flutist Helen Wilson and trumpeters Rob Greenwood and Tom Walsh. No humbug there, nor is there any on "The Ghost of Marley," set in a reggae form (Jacob Marley or Bob Marley?) and featuring guitarist Jonathan Russell, or the fast-paced "We Three Spooks," based loosely on the hymn "We Three Kings of Orient Are," whose saucy Afro-Caribbean mood is enriched by drummer Scott Chapman and accentuated by its soloists, pianist Chris Eldred, tenor Tom Stone, trombonist Robbie Harvey and soprano Richard Shepherd.

Ed Barker's shapely alto is showcased on the ballad "Long Forgotten," after which Wilson, Dodd and Shepherd return to undergird baritone Ben Mallinder, trumpeter Henry Armburg-Jennings and vibraphonist James Larter on the exuberant "Tiny Tim." Smith and Adjepong, whose voices are heard "instrumentally" throughout the suite, share the upbeat lyric on "God Bless Us," which is followed by a "bonus" track, Hart's "The Twelve Bars of Christmas," which appeared originally on NYJO's album A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in 1993. Different personnel, same result: almost ten minutes of superlative big-band jazz with brief but emphatic statements by (former) NYJO members Lisa Grahame and Howard McGill (alto), Adrian Revell and Scott Garland (tenor), Julian Siegel (baritone), trumpeters Martin Shaw, Ian Wood, Mark Cumberland, Jim Lynch, Jon Scott and Olly Preece, trombonists Pat Hartley, Brian Archer, Malcolm Smith, Tracey Holloway and Colin Philpott, and last but by no means least, the late great drummer Chris Dagley, perhaps the best timekeeper ever to sit in that chair for NYJO.

As was the case with Hamelin, a second disc is part of the package; whereas with the former it was a DVD in which NYJO performed the suite at London's Royal Albert Hall, interspersed with readings from the text by Helen Ashton, A Christmas Carol is accompanied by a second CD in which each of the suite's six movements is preceded by a reading from Dickens' novel by actor James Smoker who's presently appearing the the London production of Les Miserables. Smoker is excellent, as is everyone else, especially the master composer / arranger Paul Hart, who has triumphed again. A Christmas Carol, as envisioned by Hart and performed by NYJO, is a boon for any season, and is recommended without pause.

Two Bone Big Band

Hornplayers Fifty-Fifty

Mons

2012

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