Big bands come at the listener from a variety of angles these days, some more aslant than others. On Pinnnacle, Los Angeles-based composer / arranger / pianist Ted Howe covers all the bases, navigating his thirteen-piece orchestra through styles ranging from swing to funk, Latin to tone poem, often with classical undertones. Howe gives credit for his eclectic approach to the late Herb Pomeroy, with whom he studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and afterward by late-night telephone after Howe ended his tenure as an instructor at Berklee and moved to Atlanta, GA.
Among other things, Pomeroy was a Duke Ellington enthusiast and scholar, and Howe writes that the three-movement Suite #1 for Jazz Orchestra, whose aesthetic is at the heart of this admirable session, was inspired by the many suites composed by Ellington for his orchestra. Howe began work on the Suite in 1981 and has revised and modified it over the years. The other four numbers on Pinnacle, also influenced by Pomeroy (to whose memory the album is dedicated), were written in 2011-12. They include the red-hot opener, "Presto for Two Trombones," which showcases to of the L.A. area's most acclaimed 'bone masters, Andy Martin and Francisco Torres, with another splendid solo by bassist John Patitucci.
"Presto" is followed by the debonair "Impromptu for Trumpet," featuring Lester Walker whose eloquent horn engrafts precisely the proper warmth and spirit. Walker solos again, this time muted, on the last of the eighteen-minute Suite's movements, a powerful flag-waver whose sturdy underpinnings are supervised by Patitucci and drummer Marlon Patton. The rhythm section introduces the first movement, whose funky rhythms provide a sturdy bridge to the second, a more subtle vehicle for horns, winds and rhythm underscored by Geoff Haydon's Fender Rhodes. Howe's tasteful piano is front and center on the enchanting eleven-minute "Adagio for Piano," Patitucci's resonant bass and Sam Skelton's animated clarinets on the closing "Jazz Etude for Three Clarinets."
Although the name Pinnacle may represent a modest overreach, Howe's orchestra traverses a sizable expanse of musical ground, most of which is well worth canvassing. His compositions and arrangements are never less than engaging, the orchestra itself sound in every respect. In short, a first-rate album replete with pleasant surprises.
Presto for Two Trombones; Impromptu for Trumpet; Suite #1 for Jazz Orchestra (Movement 1 / Movement 2 / Movement 3); Adagio for Piano; Jazz Etude for Three Clarinets.
Ted Howe: leader, composer, arranger, piano (2, 6); Mike Barry: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lester Walker: trumpet, flugelhorn; Melvin Jones: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sam Skelton: flute, clarinet, Eb clarinet, soprano, alto sax; Don Erdman: clarinet, tenor sax; Seth Kuehn: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Wes Funderburk: trombone; Tom Gibson: trombone; Andy Martin: trombone (1); Francisco Torres: trombone (1); Geoff Hayden: piano, Fender Rhodes (1, 3-5, 7); Dan Baraszu: acoustic, electric guitar; John Patitucci: acoustic, electric bass; Marlon Patton: drums; Jose “Bam Bam” Ramirez: percussion.