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

Richard  J Salvucci By

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Years ago, in liner notes forgotten somewhere, Phil Woods said, "There are good players everywhere. You don't have to go to New York to find them," or words to that effect. I was reminded of that observation listening to Rick Hirsch's Big Ol' Band . It is composed of players from Central Pennsylvania, with Hirsch himself in State College. If you ask someone from Southeastern Pennsylvania—ok, Philadelphia—what is there between Philly and Pittsburgh, the standard answer is "Alabama," which, no offense intended, means "nothing." That is terribly unfair, as this recording goes to show, but if you know urban Northeastern prejudices, you'll know there's a lot of truth to it. Rick Hirsch is certainly aware of that. As he says "Spread among the small cities, college towns, and country seats of Pennsylvania is a community of great musicians— fantastic artists you may not know of who get together (often driving hours to meet) and make music that is every bit as creative and excellent as their big-city, big-name counterparts. This isn't specific to Pennsylvania—it's like this all over. Regional jazz scenes are thriving." And so are what used to be called (B.I., Before Internet, "territory bands.") More or less

Hirsch defines "big band" as the standard configuration since the 1930s, 5 saxophones, 8 brass, and a rhythm section. For listeners of a certain age, now trailing well off into the long tail of the Boomer generation, that might mean Woody Herman or Maynard, or maybe Basie and Ellington, with some fans of ghost bands and the occasional sophisticate who picked up on Sun Ra or Don Ellis. For the really precocious, you might be talking Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, or one of the great Black bands of the 1930s and 1940s, like Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington and Chick Webb. And then there were the great bop bands of the 1940s, like Dizzy's. Lord knows there were dozens, indeed, scores more, not to mention the women who rarely got a mention in standard histories as anything other than a novelty. Well into the 1960s, there was always a disc jockey in a major city plugging someone like Si Zentner as "The Big Hope for the Big Bands." Truly.

The thing about "the big bands" was excitement, or that's the word that was generally employed. And while it's true there were bands that swung like crazy, or were crazy hip, or exceptionally innovative, excitement was sometimes a euphemism. The euphemism was broadly construed to cover ragged playing, funky intonation, unorthodox technique, marginal reading, substance abuse of all sorts, nodding, failure to show—you name it. Add to this the constraints of recording in the good old days, and you got excitement all right. Even into the 1960s, it wasn't unusual to hear very good players struggling with tough charts. We can all name a recording where we wondered if someone , usually a lead player, was going to make something. Excitement.

I am chagrined to report that "excitement" of that sort is pretty much a casualty of the extraordinary musicianship today's players exhibit. In fact, if anything, someone of the vintage I first described is almost inevitably blown away by the extraordinary playing now on display, and Hirsch's band is a great example . "Is there anything these guys—nonspecific as to gender—can't play, or count or do?" I don't think so. To say these players, from Central Pennsylvania, of all places, just blow you away is an understatement. Let me give some examples.

I have a number of favorites on this CD, but the title track is as good an example as any. "Pocono Git-Down" (Lord, what a title) is a 24 bar blues, New Orleans street beat with trombone, trumpet and piano solos by Jay Vonada, Eddie Severn, and Steve Rudolph. The printed score comes with the helpful directions "Enthusiastically Greet One Another. Create Festive Atmosphere." Oh yeah, the players do indeed and the solo section winds up with what Hirsch calls "a big fat doit." Yup. The whole thing feels great, down to and including a wild ending with a "greasy" and then "greasier and dirtier" trumpet fill. I mention all this because the whole idea of a Pocono barn dance would've never struck me as very plausible, if you know what the Pocono Mountains were about 50 years ago or more, with an ILGWU resort, honeymoon cottages, Bushkill Falls and the rest. Somehow, the craziness all works , tight playing, but loose feel, if that makes any sense.

I don't know if Bill Holman figures conspicuously in Hirsch's galaxy of arranger models, but more than a few of the tracks bring Holman to mind. Why "Mambo Over the Mountains" should evoke the feeling I don't precisely know, although it may be the voicing of the saxophones that reminds me of some of the stuff that Holman, among others, wrote for Buddy Rich in the mid 1960s. There are very fluid solos by Kate Anderson and Peter BarenBregge against the Latin percussion. All very hip.

Maybe the chart that swings the hardest and feels the lightest is "The Way You Make Me Feel," which seems to feature just about everyone in the band and fades out with a plunger-trumpet statement by Barry Long. I guess someone would describe the tempo as medium up, but the chart just moves, and it feels very natural: it doesn't have an academic air to it at all, something I think some modern big band writing seems to suffer from. Musicianship is one thing, but sterility is another.

This is just a sample of some the great stuff to be heard from Rick Hirsch's Big Ol' Band. It ain't my grandfather's 1937 swing band, for sure. And when I look up the personnel, some familiar names, some not, I'm amused to see some of them with publications. Good Heavens. Aside from Dave Tough and Rex Stewartt, I couldn't imagine too many veterans from back in the day who ever committed pen to paper, much less looked at an academic journal, let alone published in one. Times change, big bands change, but good big band music never does. And Rick Hirsch's Big Ol' Band is very good big band music indeed.

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: tenor saxophone; Tim Powell: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Kate Anderson: alto saxophone; Greg Johnson: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; 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: lead trombone; Dan Weiner: trombone; Jay Vonada: trombone; Wes Thompson: bass trombone; Steve Rudolph: piano, keyboards; Tim Breon: guitar; Jeff Beck: electric bass; Kevin Lowe: drums; Bob Velez: percussion; Alex Meixner: accordion; Agatha Wang: piano (7); James Witherite: Hammond B3, Piano (8), Nord (1).

Title: Pocono Git-Down | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Self Produced

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