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Pointing Fingers... And Naming Names

Jack Bowers By

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As the countdown continues toward the last Big Band Report in June, the time has come to point fingers and name names—in other words, to compile a short list of contemporary jazz musicians who have risen above the norm to help make life more pleasurable for one devoted listener. These are, mind you, personal choices, and the list is far from inclusive; while some of the names may be new to you, rest assured they have earned their places. You may notice that no guitarists or bassists are named, and there's a reason for that: most of them sound about the same to me, and so there is no one who warrants special praise. Blasphemous, perhaps (especially for someone who writes about jazz), but there you have it. As long as a guitarist or bassist does his (or her) job (as most of them do) and paves the way for others to do theirs, I'm happy. Having said that, let's get down to business, looking first at an indispensable component in any big band, the trumpet section.

Starting from the west and moving eastward, there are more than a few trumpet stars on the Left Coast who can do it all: lead a section, solo with assurance or simply blend in as part of a well-oiled team. Two that stand out are Carl Saunders and Wayne Bergeron, whose breathtaking solos often veer into the realm of the incredible. Many's the time I've listened to Saunders solo while thinking to myself, "Seeing is believing, so I know he must be doing that but as it's really beyond the capability of any human being, perhaps it's my imagination playing tricks." And this from someone who saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie and even Clifford Brown in their prime and has listened in awe to the Spanish master, Rafael Mendez. Saunders' solos might best be described as mind-boggling, Bergeron's as exercises in sheer power and elasticity. And when it comes to solos that are models of eloquence and consistency, few trumpeters anywhere can surpass Bob Summers, another "anonymous" West Coast standout.

As it turns out, Summers does have an equal right here in the Southwest. I am referring of course to everyone's favorite mentor and role model, the great Bobby Shew, who bows to no one when it comes to over-all trumpet artistry, from lead players to soloists. Neither does Rob Parton, one of the best in the Midwest, who can stand his ground with almost any marksman this side of Maynard Ferguson when it comes to playing lead or soloing. Maynard, of course, continues to be the gold standard, and anyone who says otherwise is either stretching the truth or hasn't been listening closely. As for solos, the Midwest boasts another luminary in the underrated Art Davis. Moving on to the East Coast, nothing would be amiss with either Jim Ward or Dave Stahl in the lead trumpet chair, while Marvin Stamm could handle the solo work with ease, as could Brazilian expat Claudio Roditi.

Which brings us to the trombones. The West Coast is loaded with blue-chip players, from Andy Martin and Scott Whitfield to Bob McChesney, Bill Watrous and Charlie Loper, to name only a handful. The Midwest has Tom Garling, Paul McKee and Tom Matta, the East Coast, John Fedchock and Brian Pastor, among others. Several of the trombonists double as world-class composers, arrangers and bandleaders who have recorded topnotch albums with their names on the marquee. Pastor's CD, Uncommon Men, is especially rewarding.

Turning to the woodwind section, altos Lanny Morgan (who recently turned seventy-nine) and Rusty Higgins are among the West Coast's finest, while Phil Woods continues to reign on the East Coast at age eighty-one. Here in New Mexico, another octogenarian, Arlen Asher, has been shining his light on Santa Fe and Albuquerque for close to sixty years. Asher, a true virtuoso, is a master of every woodwind instrument from piccolo to bass saxophone and beyond. And here in Albuquerque, we have another excellent lead alto / soloist in Glenn Kostur. Turning eastward again, drummer Sherrie Maricle's all-female big band, DIVA, boasts a pair of superb alto soloists in Erica von Kleist and Sharel Cassity, and until recently housed another one, Anat Cohen, whose resume has blossomed since she left the band to build a career of her own. Another DIVA alum, Liesl Whitaker, who is currently with the U.S. Army Blues, should have been mentioned among the best lead trumpeters (along with Brian MacDonald of the Airmen of Note), so we'll do that now.

Tenor saxophone offers some of the clearest choices, as I have unequivocal favorites on the West Coast (Pete Christlieb), in the Midwest (Mark Colby) and on the East Coast (Eric Alexander). That's not to say there aren't many other able contenders, from Jimmy Heath and Grant Stewart to Larry McKenna, Bob Mintzer, Scott Hamilton, Don Menza and Tony Vacca (perhaps the least known among them, as he makes his home in Phoenix, AZ). Moving further down the scale, young lions Adam Schroeder and Jennifer Hall have stepped forward to help fill the gaping void left by the passing in June 2009 of West Coast baritone giant Jack Nimitz, while the veteran Bob Efford keeps soldiering on at age eighty-five. In the Midwest, Ted Hogarth helps keep the memory of Gerry Mulligan alive, and on the East Coast Claire Daly (another DIVA alum) regularly places high, and rightly so, in reader and critics polls. Stan Weiss, another marvelous player who flies well under the radar, enriches the Ed Vezinho / Jim Ward Big Band with his lithe and buoyant solos.

Naturally, brass and reeds would be undone without a rhythm section, and that includes piano and drums (the basses were dealt with earlier). Singling out pianists has become a tricky business, as most of my personal favorites are no longer with us, while those who are left aren't as active as they once were. Ahmad Jamal (eighty-two) is still around, as are Barry Harris (eighty-three), Cedar Walton (seventy-nine), Horace Silver (eighty-four) and Canada's Oliver Jones (seventy-eight) but Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Pete Jolly, Russ Freeman, Claude Williamson and so many others are gone. Among those who remain, Kenny Barron is certainly a standout, and I've always been partial to Maynard Ferguson's son-in-law, Christian Jacob. Other names that spring to mind include Harold Mabern, Mike LeDonne, Tom Ranier, David Hazeltine and Mike Longo. I'm sure there are many others, but as I said, this is a short list. And while there may be no drum titans such as Rich, Bellson, Krupa, Manne, Webb, Catlett, Blakey, Roach, Morello or Lewis on the scene, some splendid timekeepers are still plying their trade including Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes (age eighty-eight), Lewis Nash, Peter Erskine, Frank Capp, Jeff Hamilton, Billy Higgins, Kenny Washington, Carl Allen, Billy Hart, Dennis Mackrel, Joe LaBarbera and DIVA's Maricle. We'll have to make do with them.

By now you may have noticed that save for Oliver Jones, these musicians have at least one thing in common: they are all Americans. Does that imply there are no world-class musicians overseas? Not at all. What it means is the list is so long I'd have to write another column to encompass all the names that belong there. Such a list would have to include trumpeters Eric Miyashiro, Peter Asplund, Bert Joris, John MacLeod and Ack Van Rooyen; saxophonists Paquito D'Rivera, Ferdinand Povel, Igor Butman, Alan Barnes, John Williams and Michael Lutzeier; trombonists Mark Nightingale, Ian McDougall, Svatopluk Kosvanec and Robert Bachner; pianists Jan Lundgren, Makoto Ozone, Don Thompson, Junko Moriya and Peter Beets, and a large number of blue-chip drummers (not to mention guitarists such as Canadian standouts Ed Bickert and Lorne Lofsky). And we've not even mentioned composers, arrangers or the world's resident musical genius, Australia's James Morrison, who plays almost every instrument known to mankind about as well as anyone you'd care to name. In fact, two of the finest musicians I've ever heard (aside from Morrison, who is in a class by himself) were born and played overseas: baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin (Sweden) and tenor Tubby Hayes (Great Britain).

As for big bands, in spite of their always-imminent demise there are a large number of superlative ensembles on the scene both here and abroad, some led by names already mentioned, others by the likes of Bill Holman, Tom Kubis, Mike Barone, (trumpeter) Ray Brown, Kenichi Tsunoda, Michael Treni, Gordon Goodwin, Maria Schneider, Bob Curnow, Jon Altman, Gary Urwin, Jack Cortner, George Stone, Rodger Fox, Steve Owen, Cecilia Coleman and Vaughn Wiester, as well as DIVA, the Metropole Orchestra, No Name Horses, the SWR and SDR Big Bands, the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, Britain's Midland, Wigan and National Youth Jazz Orchestras (and Fat Chops Big Band), Germany's BuJazzO, topnotch regional ensembles in Dallas, Columbus, Chicago, Denver and elsewhere, and big bands on almost every decent-size college campus in the U.S. and Canada. Mind you, that's off the top of my head. Even with its many trials and tribulations (including an aging and ever-shrinking audience), the immediate future of contemporary jazz appears to be bright and strong.

The Jazz Hall of Fame

Jazz at Lincoln Center announced in April the induction of Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. The three will be honored in a ceremony June 4 at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at JALC in New York City. This year's nominees were chosen by a committee of scholars and musicians and voted on by jazz fans around the world. The committee was comprised of Ed Berger, Bill Charlap, Connie Crothers, Stanley Crouch, Jon Faddis, Vince Giordano, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Phil Schaap, Loren Schoenberg and Spike Wilner. Blakey and Hampton will be inducted posthumously; it is unlikely that Terry, who has lost both legs to diabetes, will be able to attend the ceremony. To date, Jazz at Lincoln Center has inducted forty-one members into the NEJHF.

Marking Woody's Centenary

On May 16, the one hundredth anniversary of Woody Herman's birth, the Pecos River Brass Band directed by John C. Smith will present a memorial concert at the Irving (TX) Fine Arts Center with guest trombonist Phil Wilson who has written a suite for Woody that the band will perform. For information, e-mail john@pecosriverbrass.com or go online to www.pecosriverbrass.com/band

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