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Refractions is a beautiful album, one in which almost everything composer/arranger Kim Richmond touches turns to gold. From one who was largely unimpressed by the Concert Jazz Orchestra's previous endeavors, that's saying a lot. But I'm only too happy to change course and sprinkle praise where it is due. If every album by a "concert orchestra" were as picturesque and persuasive as this one, I'd not hesite to give all of 'em an emphatic thumbs up. That's not usually the case, however. Too often, it seems, the composer/arranger is more eager to flaunt his/her mastery of the idiom than to write music that is charming and listener-friendly. Richmond has met that challenge head-on and come away a clear winner.
But does the music swing? you may ask. In its own way, yes – but not, however, like Basie, Herman, Buddy Rich or other bands for whom swinging was the paramount goal. There are a number of agreeably rhythmic passages and lissome solos by a wide variety of players, but all of that is peripheral to the cause as Richmond keeps the ensemble and his visionary charts squarely in the foreground.
As I said earlier, almost everything here turns to gold. The "almost" is required because of Richmond's lone extravagance, an over-the-top and at times less-than-palatable arrangement of the venerable cowboy anthem "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." It does have its moments (lovely intro, for example) but tends to lose its wheels in midstream as Richmond, in his words, "decomposes" the orchestral theme (in other words, lets the brass and reeds run basically free) before returning to solid ground, pretty much squandering respectable solos by himself, Berger, Jenkins and McMullen and making Bill Roper's "narration" superfluous (not to mention largely incomprehensible).
Elsewhere Richmond shows far more restraint, opening with the radiantly lovely "Continued Obscurity" and pressing on with what he refers to in the liner notes as "the centerpiece of the album," the ethereal "Precious Promises," whose vibrant orchestral sonorities, fashioned by double reeds, multi-flutes and French horns, complement an exquisite prefatory statement by Bob Carr's bassoon and a forceful solo by trombonist Fowler. If that's the centerpiece, one hardly knows how to characterize Michel Legrand's hauntingly beautiful "You Must Believe in Spring," yet another breathtaking chart on which guest Bob Florence's unaccompanied piano introduces the melody and Driskill and King append compelling remarks. The multifaceted "Variations," which follows, was written as a tribute to the late Bill Russo whose forward-looking compositions for the Stan Kenton Orchestra and afterward followed a similar path.
The CJO closes the show with Mike Crotty's luminous arrangement of "America the Beautiful," to which Richmond has added an introduction and ending and on which he states the melody on soprano sax while Yoakum weighs in with a gritty tenor solo. It's a great way to cap an essentially marvelous album, one that has earned Kim Richmond's stylish Concert Jazz Orchestra at least one ardent new champion.
Track Listing: Continued Obscurity; Precious Promises; Fantasy on You Must Believe in Spring; Variations; Franz;
Stella by Starlight; 3 Refractions; Tumbling Tumbleweeds; America the Beautiful (74:35).
Personnel: Kim Richmond, conductor, composer, arranger, alto, soprano sax; Jeff Driskill, alto, soprano sax,
flute, piccolo; Phil Feather, alto sax, oboe, flute; Glen Berger, John Yoakum, tenor sax, flute, clarinet;
Bob Carr, baritone sax, bass clarinet, bassoon; Mike McGuffey, Ron King, Steve Huffsteter, Clay
Jenkins, trumpet, flugelhorn; John Dickson, Paul Loredo, Jean Marinelli, French horn; Bruce Fowler,
Joey Sellers, Bill Tole, George McMullen, trombone; Morris Repass, bass trombone; Bill Roper,
tuba, voice; Tom Hynes, guitar; Rich Eames, piano; Trey Henry, Ken Wild, bass; Ralph Razze,
drums; Brad Dutz, hand percussion; David Johnson, mallet percussion (vibes, timps, orchestra bells,
chimes). Guest piano soloist -- Bob Florence ("You Must Believe in Spring").