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R3: Special Big Band / Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra / Empire Jazz Orchestra

Jack Bowers By

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R3: Special Big Band

R3

Summit Records

2012

The "R3" in this Brazilian-based band's name refers to brothers Rafael, Renato and Roger Rocha who together comprise its heart and soul. The "Special" pertains to just about everything else on this impressive debut album. Indeed, there could be even more "R's" in the title, as the pianist is Flavio Rocha (presumably another sibling), Robson Rodrigues plays electric bass and Joabe Reis trombone. But those three R's will more than suffice. And while no more than nine musicians are listed on any particular number, that is misleading, as Roger Rocha doubles from time to time as a complete saxophone section and brother Rafael does the same for trombones, thanks to overdubbing. That's not to say that everything is strictly "big band," as the trumpets sit out on three tracks while Bruno Santos plays flugelhorns (plural) on another with Roger on tenor and soprano sax and Rafael on Fender Rhodes.

Rafael Rocha serves as the band's chief arranger (ten of a dozen tracks); brother Roger co-arranged the buoyant opener, "Vem com Josue Lutar em Jericho" (Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho). Apropos the other charts, one (the brief, chorale-like "Sou Feliz") was written by Santos (for brass and reeds only), the other ("O Festim de Gloria") by Luiz Vanderlei Rocha (verified in the liner notes as father of the brood, akin to a Latin-style Ellis Marsalis and Sons). Roger (tenor, soprano sax) and Rafael are the group's principal soloists, and each is splendid, as is Renato who keeps the rhythm percolating with help from Flavio, bassists Rodrigues, Cristiano Martins, Andre Vasconcelos and Hugo Maciel, guitarist Giovani Malini and percussionist Leo De Paula. Others who improvise with aplomb are Santos, Malini, trumpeter Elias Junior and tenor saxophonists Marcelo Martins and Paolo Levi.

"Jericho," as it turns out, isn't the only familiar tune; "Ha Um Pais" is in reality "Danny Boy," and "Porque Vivo Esta" (emphatically introduced by Renato's pliable drum set) sounds like another specimen from the Great American Songbook whose thinly disguised melody has managed (so far) to confound these usually dependable ears (or, it could be an English folk song from the Ted Heath library). Be that as it may, even the lesser-known tunes are consistently engaging, thanks to Rafael's well-drawn arrangements and the band's unswerving expertise. The samba "Aonde for Irei" is bright and lyrical, the ballads "Como Agradecer a Jesus" and "Alvo Mais Que a Neve" warm and beguiling with earnest solos by Roger and Rafael. That's not to underplay anything else, as this is an album that gladdens from start to finish; R3 is indeed a "Special" big band, one that is well worth hearing.

Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra

Timeless

Gull Lake Jazz

2012

As leader Harry Boesch observes in the liner notes, even though most of the songs on the Michigan-based Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra's debut recording were written more than half a century ago, there is a Timeless quality to them, thanks in part to the nature of jazz itself and to the talent and creativity of present-day arrangers whose singular vision helps transform well-worn evergreens into themes that sound as fresh as if they'd been written yesterday. The maestros whose handiwork is on display here are Don Schamber, Alan Baylock, the late Frank Mantooth, Bob Curnow, Patrick Williams, Tim Culver, Don Menza, Jim Martin, Tom Kubis, Mark Taylor, Vince Norman, Chris Braymen and, last but by no means least, Mike Barone, whose perceptive arrangement of Bob Nolan's Western classic, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (for which Barone is mistakenly given composer credit on the album jacket) blows any and all competitors across the turnpike and into a neighboring county.

Truth be told, that's no easy task when the playlist includes resourceful variations on standards by Schamber ("Time After Time"), Baylock ("Over the Rainbow"), Mantooth ("Misty"), Williams ("In the Still of the Night"), Curnow ("Speak Low") and Taylor ("Bewitched"), as well as trumpeter Culver's deft arrangement of Dave Frishberg's seductive "Peel Me a Grape" (one of three vocals by Edye Evans Hyde), Braymen's snappy treatment of Juan Tizol's "Perdido," Martin's savory "Clam Chowder," Norman's urbane "Trilogy" (whose brief introduction calls to mind Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments") and—again, last but not least—"Samba Dees Godda Do It," an irrepressible Latin masterpiece by the incomparable Tom Kubis. The Gull Lake Orchestra plays them well, especially so for a seven-year-old regional ensemble many of whose members are part-timers (and almost all of whom have been with the orchestra since it was formed in 2005). Brass and reeds are suitably tight and well-groomed, the rhythm section agile and steady, soloists as alert and efficient as would more than likely be the case in groups of comparable makeup and experience. Besides Culver, who solos on three numbers, they include trumpeters Danny Barber and Scott Cowan, alto Greg Marsden, tenor Gary McCoury, trombonist Earlie Braggs (featured on "Speak Low"), pianist Terry Lower and drummer Tim Froncek (whose brushwork and timekeeping on "Still of the Night" is outstanding, as is the ensemble work). Hyde earns mixed grades, as she fares quite well on "Grape" and "Bewitched," rather less so on "I Just Found Out About Love" (arranged by Menza).

In sum, a splendid debut for Boesch and his youthful Gull Lake Orchestra. The hope is that the leader can find enough gigs for his charges to keep the enterprise afloat, as Michigan is fortunate to have an ensemble of this caliber residing within its borders (as indeed would any state from coast to coast).

Empire Jazz Orchestra
Accentuate the Positive
Self Published
2012
The Empire Jazz Orchestra is the sort of accomplished, community-based big band that, in a perfect world, would make its home in almost every hamlet in America. Furthermore, every such group would have a singer as bright and personable as Colleen Pratt who shines on the title track and Moe Koffman's "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" (yes, it does have lyrics). As it is, the EJO, a professional jazz repertory ensemble, makes its home at Schenectady County (NY) Community College. Luckily for the rest of us, it has the resources to share its music on CDs, the sixth of which under director William Meckley is Accentuate the Positive.

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