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Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass: Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass Play the Jazz Classics

Robert Spencer By

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Competent is the key word here. Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass have been at their labor of love of big band music for almost thirty years; here, as they Play the Jazz Classics, their long experience shows. The playing is lovely and loving, every detail is in place, and the record is thoroughly satisfying in every way. Lovers of adventure and innovation should look elsewhere, but does music have to be new or inventive to be beautiful? Lovers of beautiful music for its own sake will become immediate fans of Mr. McConnell and his merry brassters. If you wish Basie were still around — if you wish Miles had released two hundred variations of Miles Ahead — this is for you. In fact, McConnell confesses amiably in the liner notes to having listened to Miles Ahead "so many times"; he obviously listened hard. Wary big band fans can be certain that McConnell hasn't spent nearly as much time with, say, Bitches Brew, or Agharta.

The shadow of Miles certainly falls long over the trumpet section. His melancholy and expressive tone has been thoroughly absorbed by John MacLeod, whose flugelhorn infuses Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation" with a sober longing that is set off in interesting fashion by the band. MacLeod seems to be feeling a little more down than the rest of them, and the resulting contrast is intriguing in a Sinatra-at-the-bar-at-3-AM sort of way: this is music for the dregs of an ever-so-sophisticated party after she's gone and there's nothing to do but set the fedora down and order another. While the band plays and plays.

In contrast, John Johnson's alto seems to be the up one while the band is down on "Autumn in New York." Maybe this is what Miles meant when he said that Gil Evans had taught him so much about "contrary motion and shit like that." Of course, he was referring to the harmonic motions of the soloist and accompanists, but McConnell seems to have captured its potential for casting the moods of his soloists in particularly effective lights.

All the music here has been recorded before, so this has a bit of a Greatest Hits feel to it, although it's an all-new recording from May 1997. Dave Dunlop is introduced as the new lead trumpet player, but the new man has to pay his dues, and Dave doesn't get to solo. We do hear from, among others, Guido Basso on flugelhorn, the leader on a charming valve trombone, and the soulful David Restivo on piano. Also on hand in this enormous ensemble are Moe Koffman, Alex Dean, Rick Wilkins, and Bob Leonard (reeds); Steve McDade and Kevin Turcotte (trumpets, flugelhorns); Alastair Kay, Bob Livingston, Jerry Johnson and Ernie Pattison (trombones); James MacDonald and Judy Kay (French horns); Ed Bickert (guitar); Jim Vivian (bass); and Ted Warren and Brian Leonard (drums and percussion).

What are they playing? Well, McConnell stays on predictably firm ground here: fans of "Ascension," "Kulu Se Mama" and "Karyobin" will have to wait for future releases. For this one, how about Brubeck's "The Duke," the Duke's "Sophisticated Lady," and Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York"? Garnish with "A Child is Born," "Blue Silver," "Pensativa," Strayhorn's "Day Dream," and a few other deserved perennials. Warm lightly over a low fire. Serve cool.


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