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Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: OverTime: Music of Bob Brookmeyer

John Ephland By

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There's a richness, a depth, a density to his varied charts. And the soloists and ensemble passages inside those charts! Such has always been the case with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, then, and now. For real, gliding from the spirit of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, this edition of the VJO now embraces another one of its own: trombonist/composer/arranger/pianist Bob Brookmeyer, with Over Time: Music Of Bob Brookmeyer.

And what different sound comes from this grand aggregate of 16, plus three on selected tracks. The richness heard in all those chromaticlasmatic (new word) and hard-charging charts of Jones,' those sweet, sweet melodies are suddenly transformed into another man's vision of this historic group, with music composed right up until Brookmeyer's death in 2011(four of the five written in the early '80s when he the band's musical director). And yet, oddly enough, the spirit of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra is only furthered by the late Brookmeyer's alternate, complementary visions, visions that also take advantage of this band's uncanny knack for quick moves, extended blowing and eloquence where time stands still, the blues implied more often than stated outright.

One only has to listen to Suite For Three, the second, third and fourth cuts in a program of eight compositions overall to get the drift. Entitled and written for three stalwart members, "Oatts," "Scott" and "Rich" deftly move between three of the VJO's key musical personalities in thick-and-engaged swinging runs that sandwich a lovely, gravity- defying ballad of sorts. Named for saxophonist Dick Oatts (playing alto), Scott Wendholt on flugelhorn and Rich Perry on tenor saxophone, respectively, the three tunes stand alone but, in some crazy way, all easily fall under the "Suite For Three" banner as reflections of what is a hallmark of any great big band, and this one in particular: the combination of distinct musical personalities inside the larger vibe of a family of players. Needless to say, all three of these voices acquit themselves in rip-roaring fashion, Wendholt doing it in a more serene, understated kind of way.

While "The Big Time" serves as a kind of overture to Over Time, delivering an "overall" message of future swing and ornate twists and turns, the aptly titled "XYZ" serves as a kind of centerpiece to everything, its length (14:33) allowing for a string of soloists to work inside and outside the strengths of this stop-on-a-dime orchestra. The chart is full of nuance when it isn't just flat-out blowing, Billy Drewes on soprano saxophone deliciously meandering into Rich Perry's hearty swing. There's even a spat or two of free jazz, orchestrated though it may be, here and there. Call them spasms, the top-drawer rhythm section of pianist/musical director Jim McNeely, bassist David Wong and, especially, John Riley on drums plays as if operating with an elegiac sense of extra sensory perception. Also peppering the ultimately playful "XYZ" are trumpeter Terell Stafford on an exquisite mute and the ever estimable trombonist John Mosca, whose siren song solo coda of sorts stops everyone in their tracks. You might say there are two suites here, and this is the other one.

There is a break in the "Bobby" Brookmeyer parade of hits here with the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer standard "Skylark," the link being Brookmeyer's classic arrangement straight down the middle, equal parts blaring and dreamy, and featuring a soulful Dick Oatts once again running up and down in measured, feeling-full gestures on alto saxophone. This one, enhancing the ballad's lovely contours, serves as the CD's most connective link to a big band always in love with great songs, no matter where they come from. And the Ellingtonian tradition of writing for specific members of the band continues with another suite of sorts, "At The Corner Of Ralph And Gary," referring to two more amazing voices, Ralph Lalama on tenor saxophone and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. At a little over 11 minutes, this piece is another example of lively charts mixing it up with two more distinctive voices, in a sense the two duking it out in a busy and singing tour de force full of the usual Brookmeyer nooks and crannies. That said, for those new to this band, by the point one gets to "At The Corner," there can be a feeling with these charts—you're sittin' on that corner and it's getting kinda late—that Brookmeyer's writing might become too insistent, with an obvious lack of ebb and flow that can connect the casual listener beyond the intricacies, the almost classical nature of his writing, if you're not right there, capable of creating a sense of going in circles.

That sense of coming close to too much, too often appears to be intuitively addressed and answered with the final number, "Sad Song," another showcase for Oatts, this time (perhaps on cue) on his lighter-than-air flute. As if answering a call to un-thicken things, with a return to pure feeling a la "Skylark," "Sad Song," as the title denotes, is aimed directly at feeling. In an odd place, ending this mostly boisterous CD, "Sad Song" combines elements that seem to inject an almost oriental calm, the charts more porous, the pace tranquil at times. In many respects, it's the most exposed work on Over Time, allowing as it does for no inherent forward motion, Oatts' flute a kind of siren of serenity. And, with its lovely ensemble passages, "Sad Song" leaves one with at least one question more than any fixed answers as to the current state of this now magisterial organization. Ending on a more mysterious note—with Jim McNeely's delicate seesawing piano arriving at an almost unresolved note—Over Time might just upend one's idea of the new spirit of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Perhaps, that was the implied idea from the git-go.

Track Listing: The Big Time; Suite for Three: Oatts / Scott / Rich; XYZ; Skylark; At the Corner of Ralph and Gary; Sad Song.

Personnel: Nick Marchione: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tanya Darby: trumpet, flugelhorn; Terell Stafford: trumpet, flugelhorn; Scott Wendholt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Oatts: alto, soprano sax, flute; Billy Drewes: alto, soprano sax, flute; Rich Perry: tenor sax, flute; Ralph Lalama: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Gary Smulyan: baritone sax; Frank Basile: bass clarinet (3, 5, 8); David Peel: French horn (1, 5, 6, 8); John Mosca: trombone; Luis Bonilla: trombone; Jason Jackson: trombone, bass trombone; Douglas Purviance: bass trombone; Jim McNeely: piano; David Wong: bass; John Riley: drums; Mike Truesdell: percussion (1, 5, 8).

Title: OverTime: Music of Bob Brookmeyer | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Planet Arts Records

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