Although drummer Art Lillard's Heavenly Band makes its home about as far from heaven as one could plausibly roamNew York City, to be precisethe music it produces on Reasons to Be Thankful (recorded in 2000 and released six years later) evokes at times an empyrean vibe, thanks in part to blissful arrangements by Lillard and guitarist Mark McCarron and spirited blowing by the ensemble. As for the point of view, it might best be described as contemporary swing, employing sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic devices in the service of themes that are firmly anchored in essential tradition.
This is especially true of the instrumental tracks, which number seven including McCarron's groovy "Fast Track" (on which trombones and brass sparkle), Lillard's melodious "Justice Waiting" and Lillard / Carol Chaikin's persuasive "Finding Our Own Way" (arranged by McCarron). Pianist Mike Longo and alto saxophonist Bob Mover are front and center on "Fast Track," Longo, McCarron and trumpeter Justin Mullens on "Justice Waiting," Longo, McCarron, Lillard and trumpeter Erik Jekabson on "Our Own Way." Other soloists who impress are sopranos Kyle Whelans and Jay Collins, tenor David Peterson, trombonist Michael Boschen and flutist Mauricio Smith. Mary Foster Conklin sings on "Conclusion Jump," "Nonchalant" and "Incognito," Miles Griffith on "You Can't Win Blues" and "Swingin' the Blues Away," Cleve Douglass on "Dreamscape / Perfect World." Each of them, if less than remarkable, is a seasoned professional who never gives less than the best that he / she has to offer.
The band, for its part, is taut and sturdy, while Lillard anchors a broad-shouldered rhythm section whose members include McCarron, pianists Longo or Arturo O'Farrill and bassists Sean Smith or George Mitchell, with added percussion on several tracks by Gilad (single name only) and Todd Isler. In spite of the vagaries of the music business, Lillard has somehow managed to keep the Heavenly Band together for almost twenty years. That is a blessing, and ranks high among the Reasons to Be Thankful. Another twenty or even more? Let us pray . . .
Bluez Organ Man; The Fast Track; Swingin’ the Blues; Justice Waiting; Conclusion Jump; Heavenly; Nonchalant; Incognito; Biznes Changes; Finding Our Own Way; You Can’t Win Blues; Dreamscape / Perfect World; Reasons to Be Thankful.
Art Lillard: leader, composer, arranger, drums; Justin Mullens: trumpet; Erik Jekabson: trumpet; Jim Cifelli: trumpet (6); Kyle Whelan: soprano sax; David Valdez: alto sax; Bob Mover: alto sax (2, 3, 9, 11); David Peterson: tenor sax; Jan Leder: flute; Jeff Schiller: flute; Mauricio Smith: flute; Jay Collins: soprano sax, flute (7, 8, 12); Michael Boschen: trombone; Phil Arnold: trombone; Mark McCarron: guitar; Arturo O’Farrill: piano (1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12); Mike Longo: piano (2-4, 7, 10, 11, 13), vocal (11); Sean Smith: bass (1, 5, 7, 10, 11); George Mitchell: bass (6, 8, 9, 12, 13); Gilad: percussion; Todd Isler: percussion; Mary Foster Conklin: vocals; Cleve Douglass: vocals; Miles Griffith: vocals; Brook Lillard: vocals.