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Ray Brown's Great Big Band / NYJO / Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra

Jack Bowers By

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Ray Brown's Great Big Band


Brown Cats Productions


Sixteen years have passed since Ray Brown's Great Big Band (love that name!) recorded Impressions of Point Lobos, one of the stellar albums of 1994. Brown has ended that prolonged hiatus with Kayak, which should brighten many a listener's catalog of Top Ten albums for 2010-11. Whether the emphasis is on great or big, Brown's California-based band proves time and again that neither avenue is imprecise. The sound is big when it needs to be, the ensemble great—individually and collectively—on every chart (all of which are Brown's).

It's always a pleasure to reconnect with alto saxophonist Mary Fettig who solos tastefully on the first two numbers, Cole Porter's "So in Love" and Victor Herbert's "Indian Summer," the last with Ray Brown's guitar-playing brother, Steve (who co-arranged the tune). Steve Brown is front and center again on Kenny Wheeler's smooth-riding "Kayak" (a.k.a. "Body and Soul"), this time with the splendid young trumpeter Erik Jekobsen. Tenor Charlie McCarthy is showcased on the standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily," the trombone section (Dave Gregoric, John Gove, Dave Eshelman, Dave Martell, Derek James) on the great trombonist Frank Rosolino's jazz waltz, "Blue Daniel," which precedes bassist Sam Jones' radiant "Del Sasser" (solos by alto Paul Contos and pianist Eddie Mendenhall). Brown dedicated the Gershwin brothers' "Our Love Is Here to Stay" (played in three tempos—slow, medium, up) to his older brother Glenn who died in 2007. Darting among the shifting time signatures are Eshelman and tenor saxophonist Bennett Friedman.

Mendenhall commands the spotlight on Bill Evans' dreamy "Turn Out the Stars," Friedman on John Coltrane's bustling "Moment's Notice," Jekobsen on Sergio Mendes' ballad "Song of No Regrets," vocalist Gail Dobson on Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before." The band rings down the curtain with Miles Davis / Victor Feldman's sprightly "Seven Steps to Heaven" (virile solos courtesy of McCarthy and trumpeter Don Beck). Drummer Dave Houghton drives the band to "Heaven" with finesse and assurance, as he does throughout the session. Steve Brown, Mendenhall and bassist John Shifflett round out the ensemble's formidable rhythm section.

Sailing aboard this Kayak is an invariably rewarding experience. Thanks to Ray Brown for shepherding the Great Big Band into a studio, but please don't make everyone wait another sixteen years before recording again.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra

For Dick Morrissey and Chris Dagley

Stanza Records


Sometimes even the most heartfelt tributes spring forth as much by chance as by design. Great Britain's superb National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), wishing to honor tenor saxophonist Dick Morrissey, who died of cancer at age 60 in 2000, received an unforeseen but no less welcome prize when moving its office this year (2010) from Victor Road, Harrow, to Vigo Street in London's West End. Among the hundreds of items turned up during the move was a recording of a live performance by NYJO with guest artist Morrissey taped at the Buxton Opera House in 1990. As if fate were working overtime, the drummer on that occasion happened to be Chris Dagley, a longtime NYJO stalwart who lost his life at age 38 in an early-hours motorcycle accident on July 28, 2010. Instantly, one memorial became two, and the album was lovingly dedicated to the lives and legacies of Morrissey and Dagley.

Even though the concert was preserved from the back of the hall on a Walkman recorder, and its provenance is clear in the sometimes boxy and less-than-burnished sound, the power and precision of NYJO come shining through on every number, as do the passion and energy of its irrepressible foreman, the 19-year-old Chris Dagley. As for Morrissey, he brings his special talent to the fore on seven of eleven numbers starting with Alan Hare's buoyant "Afterburner." Hare also wrote the groovy "Lift Off" and arranged the standard "Tangerine," each of which embodies one of Morrissey's no-nonsense manifestos, as do the late Harry South's turbulent "Storm Warning" and majestic "Royal Flush" (saxophones and rhythm only), Paul Higgs' succulent "Syrup of Phiggs" and Chris Smith's rapid-fire finale, "Going Dutch" (which fades during Morrissey's impassioned solo). Rounding out the concert are Smith's easygoing"Yessica" (showcasing a young Lisa Grahame on flute) and appetizing "Cheese & Carrots," Higgs' intense "Water Babies" and Mark Nightingale's clever renovation of a well-known Gershwin classic, "S'wonderfuel."

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