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Rick Hirsch's Big Ol' Band: Pocono Git-Down

Jack Bowers By

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Even though the days of cross-country bus trips, one-night stands and regular appearances on radio and TV have long since vanished, big bands continue to dot the landscape on all corners of the map, from such large population hubs as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and others to cities and towns so small that their names are generally unfamiliar to anyone who doesn't live nearby. Composer / arranger Rick Hirsch's impressive Big Ol' Band, which makes its debut on Pocono Git-Down, consists for the most part of first-class musicians from central Pennsylvania (near the Pocono mountains), with others from neighboring Maryland, one (trumpeter Brent Turney) from Wisconsin and another (saxophonist Greg Johnson) from California. Hirsch himself lives in State College, home of Penn State University where he once served as an adjunct professor in the Jazz Studies department.

As this is not a working band (a fact that no one would suspect from its performance here), Hirsch had to assemble his "dream team" while waiting patiently for a chance to gather everyone together in a recording studio. That chance arrived in July 2016 when Hirsch and the band (literally) kicked-started Pocono Git-Down at Red Rock Recording in Saylorsburg, PA. The nine charts that Hirsch set before them encompassed seven of his original compositions and one each by Eric Clapton ("Wonderful Tonight") and Michael Jackson ("The Way You Make Me Feel").

Hirsch, who has been writing and arranging for big bands for well over twenty years, takes the reins firmly in hand on the prancing opener, "Giddyup!," on which the saxophones set the pace before releasing the fast-moving vehicle to shouting brass, supple trombones and sharp-shooting solos by tenor Greg Johnson and trombonist Jim McFalls. "Git-Down," whose barn-dance spirit enfolds bright solos by trombonist Jay Vonada, trumpeter Eddie Severn (a Pennsylvanian via Scotland and the U.K.) and pianist Steve Rudolph, is followed by the seductive "Tonight, We Tango," featuring guest accordionist Alex Meixner and embracing the first of Hirsch's two muscular tenor solos (the other is on the fast-moving "Metroliner," which slows in mid-course before thundering home). Rudolph's keyboard artistry is showcased on the sumptuous ballad "Wonderful Tonight," McFalls, Vonada and Johnson (soprano) on the powerful and atmospheric "Old Chief's Lookout."

Pianist Agatha Wang's delicate intro to "The Witching Hour" was recorded in August and superimposed on the chart, whose eerie countenance brings to mind late-night visits from ghosts and other apparitions. Tim Powell's rippling soprano sax and Severn's flugel underline the spectral mood, which pivots to sunny for the rhythmic "Mambo Over the Mountain," wherein alto Kate Anderson solos for the first time with drummer Kevin Lowe, percussionist Bob Velez and tenor (and ex-Airman of Note) Pete BarenBregge, one of at least two former armed forces standouts on the date (McFalls enjoyed a stellar career with the Army Jazz Ambassadors). Jackson's buoyant "The Way You Make Me Feel" ushers the session to a cheerful conclusion on which almost every member of the ensemble has a chance to state his case including trumpeters Turney, Dale Orris and Barry Long; baritone Oliver Fairley, trombonist Dan Weiner and bass trombonist Wes Thompson.

With Pocono Git-Down, Hirsch's Big Ol' Band has made a grand ol' debut that betokens the promise of even more persuasive music streaming forth from the talent-laden hills and valleys of the Keystone State.

Track Listing: Giddyup!; Pocono Git-Down; Tonight, We Tango; Wonderful Tonight; The Old Chief's Lookout; Metroliner; The Witching Hour; Mambo Over the Mountain; The Way You Make Me Feel

Personnel: Rick Hirsch: composer, arranger, conductor, tenor saxophone (tracks 3,6); Tim Powell: alto & soprano saxophones; Kate Anderson: alto saxophone; Greg Johnson: tenor & soprano saxophones; Pete BarenBregge: tenor saxophone; Oliver Fairley: baritone saxophone; Eddie Severn: trumpet & flugelhorn; Brent Turney: trumpet & flugelhorn; Dale Orris: trumpet & flugelhorn; Barry Long: trumpet & flugelhorn; Jim McFalls: trombone; Dan Weiner: trombone; Jay Vonada: trombone; Wes Thompson: trombone; Steve Rudolph: piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer; Jeff Beck: electric bass; Kevin Lowe: drums; Tim Breon: guitar; Bob Velez: percussion; James Witherite: Hammond B3 & Nord; Agatha Wang: piano (track 7); Alex Meixner: accordion (track 3)

Title: Pocono Git-Down | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Big Ol' Records


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