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Nova Jazz Orchestra / UNT One O'Clock Lab Band / Frank Macchia / Omar Sosa & NDR Big Band


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Nova Jazz Orchestra
A Time of Reckoning

If the premise that experience is the best teacher is indeed accurate, one need look no further than the Minnesota-based Nova Jazz Orchestra for proof. Nova, sponsored by the non-profit Nova Jazz Corporation, has been together for more than 15 years, and its recordings (A Time of Reckoning is the seventh) keep getting better and better as the ensemble gains maturity and awareness.

Even though only five members of the current orchestra performed on its debut album, In Walked Wendy, in 1995, the advantages of continuity are clear throughout its latest enterprise, from the thunderous introduction to the orchestra's high-flying "Tribute to Francy Boland" to the last notes of Greg Stinson's enchanting jazz waltz, "A Dream of Hungarian Lanterns." Sandwiched between are shapely compositions by Paul Peterson ("FEETS," "Granicus," "Grumbalambasamba"), John Ahern ("Francy Boland," "W. 7th"), Bob Byers ("Copperhead"), Steve Devich ("North Star") and Dan Cavanagh ("Gozar," "A Time of Reckoning"). Timpanist Dave Perry sets the scene on "Boland" on which he and drummer Kevin Dammen sit in for the Clarke-Boland band's Kenny Clarke and Kenny Clare.

The ensemble is supple and swinging on every number, the soloists sharp if not spectacular. The rhythm section is unswerving, and Nova doesn't overpass the value of color and dynamics. At least eight of the ten compositions and arrangements are by present or former members of the orchestra. As a rule, they are more challenging than the material embodied in Nova's previous albums. Trumpeters Ahern and Tim Martin and alto saxophonist Byers are among the holdovers from Wendy; the others are saxophonist Mike Krikava and lead trombonist Mike Larson.

Guest soloists Dave Hagedorn (vibes) and Dave Marden (flute) are out front and pleasing on "W. 7th" (with its random echoes of Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring"). Hagedorn is impressive again on "North Star" (a charming tribute to Nova's home state) and "Granicus," Marden likewise on "FEETS" and "Granicus" (flute and piccolo). The ensemble's capable soloists include tenors Peterson and Paul Burton, pianists Larry McDonough and Bruce Pedalty, trumpeters Sten Johnson, Adam Meckler and Tom Krochock. The trombone section (Larson, Larry McCabe, Ike Wagner and Chris Wiley) is showcased on the Latin-hued "Grumblambasamba."

Playing time is generous, and while recording quality isn't always keenly defined it's never less than passable. A Time of Reckoning is another sizable step forward for the Nova Jazz Orchestra, which continues to reap benefits from its stability and experience.

University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
Lab 2009
North Texas Jazz

As it's possible to count on the fingers of one hand (perhaps even one finger!) the number of undergraduate jazz ensembles that have been nominated for a Grammy Award, that makes Lab 2009 by the University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band rather special, as it not only shattered the "university ceiling" with a Grammy nomination for best jazz ensemble in 2010 but was nominated a second time for best big-band composition, director Steve Wiest's tempestuous "Ice-Nine," which consummates the superlative album.

Lab 2009 is special in yet another area, as it marks the One O'Clock Band's recording debut for Weiss who replaced the retiring Neil Slater in 2009 as the band's fourth director in a span that dates back to 1946 (the others are Gene Hall and Leon Breeden). Even though no longer out front, Slater has kept a hand on the throttle, writing and arranging a pair of the album's more provocative tunes, "Another Other" and "Time Sensitive." Lead trombonist Dave Richards composed "Dark Matters" and "Unformal" and arranged Dave Brubeck's whimsical "Here Comes McBride," while Kevin Swain revitalized Neal Hefti's Count Basie classic, "Li'l Darlin,'" Rich DeRosa artfully cooked Phil Markowitz' delectable "Sno' Peas," and John Guari composed the iridescent "November." Swain's chart, by the way, was named co-winner of DownBeat magazine's 2009 Student Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement.

As one would assume, the band's soloists are assertive and articulate, enhancing the album's stature with their incisive statements. Among the more outspoken are trumpeter Clynt Yerkes, flugel Pete Clagett, alto / soprano Sam Reid (showcased on "Li'l Darlin'"), alto Colin Hauser, tenors Sylvester Onyejiaka and Brian Clancy, pianist Ben Haugland, guitarist Ryan Davidson, bassist Ryan Hagler and drummer Michael D'Angelo (who anchors the ensemble's razor-sharp rhythm section). UNT's lab bands have another audible advantage, a state-of-the-art recording studio that clarifies every note. Of course, that can be a liability, but not in this case. Wiest and his skillful apprentices have negated that risk while affirming that the Grammy nominating panel knew what it was about. Lab 2009 fairly earned its endorsement, and should warrant your own as well.

Frank Macchia
Folk Songs for Jazzers
Cacophony Records

Chances are readers will have heard most if not all of the well-known (and oft-performed) themes on saxophonist Frank Macchia's latest album, Folk Songs for Jazzers. Even so, it's a sure bet no-one ever heard any of them played quite this way. Macchia, as is his custom, wrote all the charts, and each one is a paragon of iridescence and ingenuity. As icing on the cake, Macchia has assembled an all-star cast of Los Angeles-area sidemen (plus vocalists Tierney Sutton and Ellis Hall) to breathe life into his eclectic yet well-designed concepts. As a press release accompanying the album asserts, these are "innovative versions of classic folk songs," an appraisal that, even though low-key, hits the nail squarely on the head.

Surprises? Yes, in almost every stanza, and most of them eminently pleasing. Perusing some random examples: "Red River Valley" as an amorous blues (sung and scatted by Sutton); "Oh! Susanna" as a Gil Evans-tailored swinger; "Did You Ever See a Lassie?" as a Charles Mingus-inspired jazz waltz; "The Arkansas Traveler" as assertive fusion jazz; "Hush, Little Baby" as an (appropriately) laid-back samba; "Blue Tail Fly" as a barroom-seasoned flag-waver; "Kumbaya" as a snail-like dirge with an eccentric John Coltrane temper; "On Top of Old Smokey" as a down-home sermon complete with muted trumpet intro, gin mill piano and raunchy tenor and guitar solos. What's most amazing is that almost everything works, and works remarkably well. Even though the very idea may strike some as ludicrous, it's almost as if these venerable songs had been written to sound exactly like this.

A musician in the reed section for a Macchia recording date had best bring all his horns and woodwinds, as Macchia is sure to have him doubling, tripling, quadrupling or even more. Sal Lozano plays half a dozen reeds / winds on Folk Songs, Bob Sheppard and Jay Mason eight apiece. But like the intrepid leader he is, Macchia doesn't ask anyone to bear any burden he won't lay on his own shoulders. To inspire the troops, Macchia plays no less than ten instruments (tenor sax, piccolo flute, alto flute, bass flute, contrabass flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet). There are solos along the way by piccolos, alto clarinet, tuba, bass sax and baritone horn as well as the more customary soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, trombone and guitar.

Several of the arrangements defy description, which is why they've not been summarized. These include "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Polly Wolly Doodle," "Tom Dooley," "Amazing Grace" (sung by Hall) and "The Erie Canal." Suffice to say that they too echo Macchia's whimsical approach to any task at hand. Most are rhythmically challenging, a circumstance that Macchia has surmounted by placing the peerless Peter Erskine at the drum kit to guide an agile rhythm section that includes pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist Grant Geissman, bassist Trey Henry and Ray Frisby on vibes, bongos, tambourine, shaker and spoons. Macchia, Lozano, Sheppard, Mason, Wayne Bergeron (the ensemble's lone trumpeter), trombonists Alex Iles, Kevin Porter and Bill Reichenbach (baritone horn on "Hush, Little Baby"), Ranier and Geissman make good use of their solo turns.

Listeners should decide for themselves whether Folk Songs for Jazzers is to their liking. While it may or may not be among the topmost big band albums of the year, it is clearly one of the more resourceful. And for those who have the album in hand, Macchia has one more surprise: a "bonus" track, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," featuring Macchia and Valarie King on bass flute, available for online download by typing in a code word. What'll he think of next?

Omar Sosa & NDR Big Band
Ota Records

Salsa always goes down more easily when seasoned by a big band. On Ceremony, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa's quartet is teamed with Germany's impressive NDR ensemble on an album that brings out the best in both genres. The buoyant studio session consists primarily of superb new arrangements for big band by cellist Jaques Morelenbaum of selections from Sosa's previous albums—half a dozen from Spirit of the Roots (1999) and one apiece from Bembon (2000) and Afreecanos (2009)—to which Sosa has appended brief opening and closing themes ("Llegada Con Elegba," "Salida Con Elegba").

As one would assume, irrepressible rhythms predominate, with the Cuban danzon and cha-cha expressing Sosa's ethnic heritage. To reanimate the music, Sosa and NDR producer Stefan Gerdes enlisted the sagacious Morelenbaum, who had worked previously with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Cesar Evora, among others. The choice, it turns out, couldn't have been more auspicious, as Morelenbaum's intrepid arrangements keep Sosa and the ensemble on their collective toes throughout. Sosa is a rhythmic powerhouse, excelling on piano, vibraphone, marimba and percussion. The other members of his quartet—electric bassist Childo Tomas, drummer Julio Barreto and percussionist Marcos Ilukan—are complemented by the NDR's Stephan Diez or Roland Cabezas on guitar, bassist Lucas Lindholm, percussionist Marcio Doctor and Michael Spiro on bata drums, congas, chekere and timbal.

While the ensemble is essentially in the forefront, space is provided for generally admirable solos by Sosa, Morelenbaum, Cabezas, trumpeters Reiner Winterschladen and Claus Stotter, flugel Ingolf Burkhardt, Lutz Buchner (tenor and soprano sax), alto Peter Bolte (who goes a tad ballistic on "Chango en Esmeraldas" and "Monkuru"), trombonist Dan Gottschall, Flete Felsch (alto sax, flute) and bass clarinetist Frank Delle. Their improvisations arise naturally from the rhythmic framework that lends the studio date much of its energy and charm.

Sosa is a talented writer, Morelenbaum an accomplished arranger, and Ceremony adeptly employs their sizable talents to produce a blend that should please anyone who loves his or her salsa enlivened with an extra kick, courtesy of the NDR Big Band.

Steve Waterman Jazz Orchestra
October Arrival
Hydro Jazz

British trumpet star Steve Waterman is clearly the axis around which October Arrival revolves. Aside from his role as leader and principal soloist, Waterman wrote every one of the album's half-dozen songs and arranged all save two—"A Passing Glance" and "Destination Unknown," whose engaging charts are by John Warren.

Waterman's first-class Jazz Orchestra, formed in 2003, is comprised almost entirely of musicians from South Wales who waste no time affirming that there's a wealth of musical talent in their neighborhood. "Call It a Day" opens the session on a bracing note, rushing forward on the wings of dynamic solos by Waterman and drummer Richard Newby. Newby is also a member of Waterman's quintet, as is tenor saxophonist Russell van den Berg who secures blowing space on every other number. The tempo slows on the lyrical "Passing Glance," whose brief introduction by pianist Dave Cottle precedes admirable solos by Waterman, van den Berg and bassist Alun Vaughan.

Earnest statements by Waterman, van den Berg and Newby punctuate the rhythmic "Destination Unknown," which precedes an even-tempered title selection whose chorale-like ensemble passages underline ardent solos by Waterman and van den Berg. Trumpet and tenor are unaccompanied on the brief yet colorful "October Interlude," which yields without pause to the buoyant finale, "Journey's End," whose luminous solos are by Cottle, van den Berg and an unlisted trombonist. As Waterman and van den Berg are heard most often, a word about their respective lineage seems in order. When appraising Waterman, Tom Harrell or Brian Lynch provides a reasonable template; for van den Berg, Michael Brecker or perhaps Joe Lovano.

On October Arrival, Waterman proves beyond any doubt that he is a superb composer, arranger and soloist, and that he has assembled an orchestra that is capable of unraveling whatever design he proposes. This is high-class contemporary big band jazz with only one caveat: the 44 minute playing time is less than generous for CDs these days.

Russ Spiegel's Big Bang
Oomph! Records

To make clear his purpose, guitarist / composer Russ Spiegel calls this ensemble "big bang," not big band. And big bangs are what Spiegel's German-stocked group produces in abundance on this incendiary concert date, recorded in April 1999 in Aschaffenburg, from "Bird Droppings," Spiegel's exhilarating salute to Charlie Parker, right on through the soul-drenched finale, "Chunky." Spiegel and trumpeter Christian Meyers are the sprightly soloists on "Droppings," as they are on "Chunky."

Six of the seven numbers are original compositions by Spiegel. The other is Lionel Hampton / Benny Goodman's venerable "Flying Home," taken at a more moderate tempo than the original but with no less a propensity to swing. The same is true of Spiegel's other charts, whether deciphering the hard-bop canon ("Fourth Floor"), bearing emphatic witness ("The Gospel According to Agnes"), scurrying from discord to clarity ("Weedeater") or revisiting the time-honored blues ("P. Nose," featuring trombonist Alan Jacobson). Everything Spiegel touches turns to swing.

Spiegel's sturdy ensemble, two of whom (saxophonists Markus Lihocky and Peter "Lines" Linhart) were (and perhaps still are) members of the Aschaffenburger Big Band, is equal to the task, sprinting through his impulsive charts with abandon. The rhythm section (pianist Christoph Sanger, bassist Rudi Engel, drummer Andreas Neubauer) never lets the tempos drag, providing a spacious and secure comfort zone for brass and reeds while enlivening the various soloists. Spiegel shines with Lihocky (alto) on "Flying Home" and with Sanger, alto Volker Stegmann and trumpeter Thomas Siffling on "Fourth Floor." Stegmann and Sanger are eloquent on "The Gospel," Neubauer and tenor Alberto Menendez ditto on "Weedeater."

Even though recorded (technically speaking) "a century ago," Spiegel's ensemble and charts sound as fresh and alive as today. Since then, Spiegel has returned to New York City and formed another orchestra; even so, echoes of his "big bang" continue to reverberate long after the fact, and the album is warmly recommended.

Toronto Jazz Orchestra
Under a Tree

The admirable Toronto Jazz Orchestra has released three albums to date, the most recent The Path in 2009 and Under a Tree six years earlier. As was noted in reviewing The Path [January 2010], the TJO is good, really good; and it can swing, really swing. While there are of course dissimilar charts on Under a Tree, everything else applies. The ensemble is razor-sharp, individually and collectively. To put it another way, everyone is in sync, in tune and on the same page. A seasoned orchestra, no doubt about that.

Eight of the album's 10 selections were recorded live in May 2003 at the Pilot Tavern in Toronto, and half were written by members of the orchestra including conductor Josh Grossman's jaunty "Together at Last," a clever variation on the standard "Alone Together." Bassist Mike Smith wrote "Alicante," pianist Laila Biali the turbulent "From Everlasting to Everlasting" (on which she also solos), bass trombonist Chris Hunter "First X's Free," guitarist Todd Elsliger the sensuous "Kissing." The groovy title song, which vaguely echoes Thad Jones' "Kids Are Pretty People," was composed by Canadian legend Phil Nimmons, "Reverence" by Paul Ashwell, "In Place" by Dafydd Hughes, "The Far Side" by Greg Bush, the raucous, Mingus-inspired "Return of the Shuffleupagus" by Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones.

Although the ensemble, as noted, is alert and focused, the solos are of a more variable nature. Most are suitable but few rise far above the norm. Pianist Erin Gray is respectable on "Reverence," as are trumpeter Will Loach and alto Gareth Lewis on "Under a Tree," Gray and soprano Mark Laver on "Alicante," tenor Jonathan Kay on "Together at Last," Kay and bassist Smith on "In Place," Laver and trombonist R.J. Satchithanthanan on "First X's," guitarist Elsliger on "Kissing," Grossman on "The Far Side," tenor Chris Hunsburger and trombonist Joel Green on "Shuffleupagus." Even so, the orchestra's primary strength lies in its unflagging togetherness. For an explicit example, try "The Far Side," which opens and closes with hair-raising a cappella chorales by the brass; the surging unison passages in "Shuffleupagus," or the trim ensemble work that brightens every other tune.

While Under a Tree predates the TJO's most recent recording by half a dozen years, there's no appreciable imbalance in quality between the two, even though most of this one was recorded in concert, the other in a studio. In each case, the TJO affirms its stature as a world-class orchestra that is worthy of appraisal and respect.

Tracks and Personnel

A Time of Reckoning

Tracks: A Tribute to Francy Boland; A Time of Reckoning; W 7th; Copperhead; FEETS; North Star; Granicus; Gozar; Grembalambasamba; A Dream of Hungarian Lanterns.

Personnel: John Ahern, Sten Johnson, Tim Martin, Tom Krochock, Todd Matheson (3, 9), Adam Meckler (4), Bill Simonson (5), Mark Bobnick (8): trumpet, flugelhorn; Bob Byers: alto sax, soprano sax, flute; Sten Johnson: alto sax, flute, clarinet; Bill Burton, Paul Peterson: tenor sax, clarinet, flute; Mike Krikava: baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Mike Larson, Larry McCabe, Chris Wiley: trombone; Ike Wagner: bass trombone; Bruce Penalty: piano/Fender Rhodes (1, 3-6, 9, 10); Larry McDonough: piano (2, 7, 8); John Hyvarinen: guitar (5); Pooch Heine (1, 2, 5, 7, 8), Matt Mobley (4, 3, 6, 9), Greg Stinson (10): bass; Dave Perry, Kevin Dammen (1, 3, 9): drums. Special guest soloists: Dave Hagedorn: vibes; Dave Marden: flute, piccolo.

Lab 2009

Tracks: Sno' Peas; Dark Matters; Another Other; Li'l Darlin'; Unformal; Time Sensitive; Here Comes McBride; November; Ice-Nine.

Personnel: Steve Wiest: director; James Blackwell, Matt Timm, Thomas Davis, Clynt Yerkes, Pete Clagett: trumpet; Sam Reid, Collin Hauser, Sylvester Onyejiaka, Brian Clancy, Chris Mike: reeds; Dave Richards, Luke Brimhall, Carl Lundgren: trombone; Matt Jefferson, Jason Hausback: bass trombone; Ben Haugland: piano; Ryan Davidson: guitar; Ryan Hagler: bass; Michael D'Angelo: drums.

Folk Songs for Jazzers

Tracks: I've Been Working on the Railroad; Red River Valley; Skip to My Lou; Oh! Susanna; Did You Ever See a Lassie?; Polly Wolly Doodle; Tom Dooley; The Arkansas Traveler; Amazing Grace; The Erie Canal; Hush, Little Baby; The Blue Tail Fly; Kumbaya; On Top of Old Smokey.

Personnel: Frank Macchia, leader, arranger, piccolo, alto flute, bass flute, contrabass flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Wayne Bergeron: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sal Lozano: alto sax, piccolo, flute, bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Bob Sheppard: soprano sax, tenor sax, piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jay Mason: baritone sax, bass sax, piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn; Alex Iles: trombone, baritone horn, tuba; Kevin Porter, Bill Reichenbach: trombone, bass trombone, baritone horn, tuba; Tom Ranier: acoustic, electric piano; Grant Geissman: electric guitar, banjo; Trey Henry: acoustic bass, electric bass; Peter Erskine: drums; Tierney Sutton, Ellis Hall, vocals.


Tracks: Llegada Con Elegba; Chango en Esmeraldas; Danzon de Tus Ojos; Yemaya en el Cielo; Cha con Marimba; Mi Tradicion; Carambaba; Monkuru; Salida Con Elegba.

Personnel: Omar Sosa: composer, piano, vibraphone, marimba, percussion; Jaques Morelenbaum: arranger, cello; Thorsten Benkenstein, Ingolf Burkhardt, Claus Stotter, Reiner Winterschladen, Stephan Meinberg (6, 7, 9), Torsten Maass (6): trumpet, flugelhorn; Fiete Felsch: alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Peter Bolte: alto sax, flute; Christof Lauer, Lutz Buchner: tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Frank Delle: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Dan Gottschall, Klaus Heidenreich, Stefan Lottermann, Gunter Bollmann (6, 7, 9), Jon Welch (6, 7, 9): trombone; Ingo Lahme: bass trombone, tuba; Stephan Dietz, Roland Cabezas: guitar; Lucas Lindholm: acoustic bass; Childo Tomas: electric bass; Julio Barreto: drums; Marcio Doctor: percussion; Marcos Ilukan: bata drums, congas, cajon de rumba, guiro; Michael Spiro: bata drums, congas, chekere, timbal.

October Arrival

Tracks: Call It a Day; A Passing Glance; Destination Unknown; October Arrival; October Interlude; Journey's End.

Personnel: Steve Waterman: leader, composer, arranger, trumpet soloist; Bob Moeller, Gethin Liddington, Edward John, Derek Lawton (1, 4, 6), Andy George (2, 3): trumpet; Eric Clarke, Richard Hamer: alto sax; Russell van den Berg, Tom Harries: tenor sax; Mike Starr: baritone sax; Martin Gladdish, Phil Jarvis, Chris Thomas (1, 4, 6), James Voros (2, 3), Andrew Williams: trombone; Dave Cottle: piano; James Chadwick: guitar; Alun Vaughan: bass; Richard Newby: drums.

Big Bang

Tracks: Bird Droppings; Flying Home; Fourth Floor; The Gospel (According to Agnes); Weedeater; P. Nose; Chunky.

Personnel: Russ Spiegel: leader, composer, arranger, guitar; Ralf Nusske, Martin Auer, Christian Meyers, Thomas Siffling: trumpet; Markus Lihocky, Volker Stegmann, Peter "Lines" Linhart, Alberto Menendez, Martin Serb: reeds; Alan Jacobsen, Thomas Sauter, Viola Engelbrecht, Geor Maus: trombone; Christoph Sanger: piano; Rudi Engel: bass; Andreas Neubauer: drums.

Under a Tree

Tracks: Under a Tree; Alicante; From Everlasting to Everlasting; Reverence; Together at Last; In Place; First X's Free; Kissing; The Far Side; Return of the Shuffeupagus.

Personnel: Josh Grossman: conductor, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dave Dulong, Steve Dyte, Will Loach, Marcius Extavour: trumpet, flugelhorn; Gareth Lewis: alto sax, clarinet; Mark Laver: alto sax, flute; Chris Hunsburger: tenor sax; Jonathan Kay: tenor, soprano sax; Erica Jensen: baritone sax; Joel Green, Mark Grieve, R.J. Satchithananthan: trombone; Chris Hunt: bass trombone; Erin Gray, Laila Biali: piano (3); Todd Elsliger: guitar; Mike Smith: bass; Dave MacDougall: drums.

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