Even though such news would hardly make a ripple beyond the South Pacific, trombonist Rodger Fox
's superlative big band was nearing its golden anniversary when Plays New Zealand
was recorded in 2021. As the milestone loomed only two years in the distance, Fox decided it was time the band produced an album devoted entirely to new works written and arranged by his fellow countrymen and women. And so the excellent Plays New Zealand
may be more accurately named "plays New Zealanders."
All of the album's eight persuasive themes were composed andwith one exceptionarranged by New Zealanders. An American, the late Gordon Brisker
, scored John Key's seductive "One Step Ahead of the Blues," on which Fox's assertive trombone is featured. Brisker's ties to the area were strong, as he taught for a number of years at Australia's Sydney Conservatorium of Music following a successful career in the USA. Five songs were written by members of the band, starting with the enticing opener, "Resolute," composed by drummer Lauren Ellis. Alto saxophonist Bryn van Vliet wrote "Alife" (on which he solos, on flute, with pianist Anita Schwabe), tenor saxophonist Oscar Laven "Stretchin' with Gretchen," trumpeters Chris Selley and Ben Huntoon
"Remembering" and "H.M.S. Grand Motorboat of the Seas," respectively. Rounding out the engaging program are Brian Smith
's tantalizing "Taranaki" and William Bryant
's smooth-riding "Caribbean Cruise."
The band is in its usual masterly form, and the composers must have been elated to hear their music performed with such dexterity and finesse. "Resolute" sets the tone, with everyone digging in hard to brighten Ellis' handsome theme, while underlining ardent solos by Schwabe, Laven and alto saxophonist Louisa Williamson. Laven, Fox and Ellis are showcased on "Taranaki," Schwabe, van Vliet and bassist Rory Macartney on the groovy "Stretchin' with Gretchen" (which is listed on the jacket as Track 5 but is actually Track 3, preceding "One Step Ahead" and "Alife," the actual Track 5). Selley's "Remembering," a glowing and picturesque mid-tempo anthem with sharp solos by Laven and guitarist Deane Hunter
, leads to the steady "Caribbean Cruise" (solos by Fox and trumpeter James Guilford) and saucy "H.M.S. Grand Motorboat," which chugs merrily along on the strength of unerring ensemble passages and stalwart solos by van Vliet (alto saxophone) and Ellis.
While you do not have to breathe New Zealand to play New Zealand, it certainly does not hurt. It is hard to envision any ensemble "playing New Zealand" with greater commitment and enthusiasm than the Rodger Fox Big Band. The ensemble is commendable on every number, no less so the composers and arrangers in an alliance that impresses one as being hard to surpass.
One Step Ahead Of The Blues;
Stretchin' With Gretchen;
HMS Grand Motorboat Of The Seas.