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Rodger Fox's Wellington Jazz Orchestra / Sammy Nestico-SWR Big Band / Gran Canaria Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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Rodger Fox's Wellington Jazz Orchestra

Journey Home

Tbone Records

2011

Alan Broadbent and Rodger Fox's Wellington Jazz Orchestra: a rendezvous that took many years to bring about and is clearly long overdue—but as the saying goes, better late than never (in this case, much better!). Broadbent, a Grammy-winning composer / arranger / pianist who was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and has earned fame and fortune in the U.S. playing with and writing for such luminaries as Woody Herman, Diane Schuur, Natalie Cole, Shirley Horn, Bud Shank, Chet Baker, Irene Kral, Charlie Haden, Warne Marsh, Sheila Jordan, Scott Hamilton and many others, composed and arranged every number on Journey Home (including several that were written for one of the later Herman Herds, in which Broadbent was the pianist from 1969-72). Broadbent didn't actually return to New Zealand to record the album; his unerring setups on five selections and tasteful solos on four were appended in a Burbank, California, studio as he listened to the orchestra on his headphones, but one would never presume that, as the finished product is as tight and seamless as Lance Philip's trusty snare drum.

As if Broadbent's formidable presence weren't enough, Fox has enhanced the brass section by importing one of the Los Angeles area's premier lead trumpeters, Charley Davis, and another of L.A.'s finest, Jon Papenbrook, to round out a superior unit whose other members are Matt Hitti, Dave Lisik and Chris Selley. Trombonist Fox, the orchestra's music director, is featured twice, on "Love in Silent Amber" and "Sugar Loaf Mountain," both of which were written while Broadbent was in Herman's employ, as were "Woody 'n' Me" and the buoyant "Bebop and Roses." Broadbent solos with tenor saxophonist Colin Hemmingsen on "Woody," with Hemmingsen and trumpeter Lisik on "Roses." The eloquent Hemmingsen has center stage to himself on "The Long White Cloud" (recorded earlier on Fox's album Xtra Juicy), solos with Broadbent and flugel Hitti on "Journey Home" and with Lisik (flugel), Philip and the ensemble's "other" pianist, Anita Schwabe, on the upbeat finale, "Sonny's Step." Nick Granville's mellow guitar introduces the waggish "Far In" (preceding virile statements by Fox, tenor Mike Isaacs, alto Hayden Hockly and baritone Andre Paris) and he shines with Lisik, Philip and alto Alex Nyman on Broadbent's cheerful, smooth-riding "Chris Craft." Nyman is the lone soloist on the ballad "Don't Ask Why (For Irene)."

Journey Home was recorded at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, where Fox directs the Jazz Studies program, and sound and balance are exemplary, as is the orchestra's inspired performance. Even without Broadbent, Davis or Papenbrook, this would be a remarkable session; with them, it rises to the level of indispensable.

Sammy Nestico / SWR Big Band

Fun Time and More Live

Haenssler Classic

2011

There's no question that veteran composer / arranger Sammy Nestico has found new life and kindred souls in Stuttgart, Germany, and his fourth album with that city's superlative SWR Big Band is arguably the best of a bumper crop that began in 2004, when Nestico was a young man of eighty, with No Time Like the Present. Since then Nestico and the SWR ensemble have recorded Basie-Cally Sammy, Fun Time and now Fun Time and More Live, taped for an enthusiastic audience at what looks to be the Carl-Zeiss-Sal, in February 2010.

As usual, Nestico composed most of the tunes and arranged them all; as usual, a number of them were written for and performed by the Count Basie Orchestra, for whom Nestico served as an arranger from 1967-84; and as usual, the SWR Big Band takes to them like ducks to water. As Nestico shouts after a dynamic reading of Johnny Mandel's "Not Really the Blues," he simply "fell in love with these guys!" And what's not to love? When it comes to contemporary big bands, SWR, which has been in business for more than six decades, is about as proficient as they come. No structural niceties are overlooked, while soloists are consistently resourceful and engaging.

Speaking of soloists, the splendid alto saxophonist Klaus Graf is showcased on the ballad "Samantha," pianist Klaus Wagenleiter on "A Song for Sarah" (Vaughan), flugelhornist Karl Farrent on "Satin 'n' Glass." Graf, Wagenleiter and baritone Pierre Paquette show their mettle on "Fun Time," Wagenleiter, tenor Steffen Weber, trumpeter Ralf Hesse and drummer Guido Joeris on "Not Really the Blues." Nestico's "Blue Samuel," a thinly disguised version of Frank Rosolino's "Blue Daniel," features Wagenleiter, guitarist Klaus-Peter Schoepfer, tenor Andi Maile and trombonist Marc Godfroid, while Schoepfer, Farrent, Wagenleiter, Maile and alto Joerg Kaufmann are out front on "Rare Moment," Wagenleiter and trumpeter Martijn de Laat on "A New Day," Graf and Godfroid on the suitably christened "Pair of Aces," Weber, Paquette, Farrent and trombonist Ian Cumming on Louis Armstrong's buoyant "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," Kaufmann and bassist Decebal Badila (love that name!) on "Orchids and Butterflies." Soloists, as noted, are first-class; even so, it is Nestico's impressive charts that bring the concert to life and enrapture the audience, as they have ever since he was hired as a seventeen-year-old staff arranger for radio station WCAE in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, before moving onward and upward to write for the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note, the U.S. Marine Band and the world-renowned Basie orchestra. At the close of the concert, it sounds as though Nestico is being given a well-earned standing ovation.

Sound quality on Fun Time and More is sharp and well-balanced, as is the SWR ensemble itself. As for Nestico, he continues, much like a vintage wine, to become more tantalizing with age. Let's hope that more visits to Germany may lie ahead, and that they may encompass further productive sessions with his newfound soul mates in the wonderful SWR Big Band.

Gran Canaria Big Band

Straight Ahead

Summit

2011

A big band from Barcelona? Really? Yes indeed, and a pretty good one at that—on an equal footing, the opinion is here, with mid-level college programs in the States. On Straight Ahead, presumably its debut album, the Gran Canaria Big Band swings nicely, diving with assurance and enthusiasm into charts by Sammy Nestico, Neal Hefti, Kenny Wheeler and others, and if profundity and nuance are sometimes lost in translation, that's quite understandable. What is important is that we have a professional ensemble from Spain that is dedicated to keeping alive the grand tradition of straight-ahead big-band jazz, and that in itself is heartwarming.

While the GCBB acquits itself fairly well as a unit, the sticking point, as with many groups not steeped in the jazz tradition, rests essentially with the solos, which are presentable but lack the spark of creativity or whatever it takes to raise them above the norm. Again, mid-level college but no more than that. The best of them are tenor saxophonist Jose Angel Vera, trumpeter / artistic director Sebastian Gil, pianist Rayko Leon and guitarist Yul Ballesteros. Another stumbling block is the material, much of which has been heard so often by American listeners, performed so marvelously by Count Basie and others, that these versions are foredoomed to sound anemic by comparison. Included are three staples from the Basie book by Hefti ("Flight of the Foo Birds," "Fawncy Meeting You," "Splanky"), another by Nestico ("Basie Straight Ahead") and five standards, all sung by Laura Simo whose endeavors are earnest but uneven. Completing the program are Wheeler's aptly named "Gentle Piece" and tasteful originals by Leon ("Calles Vacias") and Juan Aleman ("Aquellos Fueron los Anos").

In spite of its flaws, it's a pleasure to hear a band from Barcelona whose repertoire encompasses the best of American big-band jazz. The CD was recorded at the Sala Gabriel Rodo, which may be a concert hall, as it has a slightly reverberant concert-hall ambience that is not displeasing but stands apart from most studio sessions. In sum, an agreeable recital whose positive aspects overshadow its shortcomings.

U.S. Air Force Academy Falconaires

Sharing the Freedom

Self Published

2011

Although the Falconaires are billed as the U.S. Air Force Academy Band, the members aren't students but savvy professional musicians, much like those representing the Airmen of Note and other ensembles who happen to be serving in the armed forces. On Sharing the Freedom, the ten selections are almost evenly divided between standards (four) and originals (six), with three splendid arrangements by alto saxophonist John Dawson, another by fellow alto Ryan Janus (his own composition, "Collateral Duty Blues"). Drummer Henrique De Almeida wrote "Deixa Falar" (Carnival), tenor saxophonist Ricky Sweum "Yesterday's Tomorrow" (both arranged by Dawson). The other originals are by Wayne Shorter ("This Is for Albert"), Freddie Hubbard ("Little Sunflower") and the talented young Colorado-based composer / arranger Chie Imaizumi ("Sharing the Freedom").There are three vocals ("I Feel a Song Coming On," "Bali Hai," "Nature Boy") by Cissy Saalborn who fares somewhat better on the ballads even though her slightly nasal timbre and mannered phrasing may not suit everyone's taste. Trombonist Mark Burditt and pianist Todd Gustafson (an unabashed standout) share blowing space on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"

Needless to say, the Falconaires perform admirably as a unit, while the soloists are consistently sharp and engaging. Dawson's nimble soprano (listed as alto) is showcased on the groovy "Albert," and he solos nicely (on alto) with De Almeida and trumpeter Marcel Marchetti on the rhythmic "Carnival." Tenor Geoffrey Torres reinforces Saalborn on "I Feel a Song," while bass clarinetist Scott Richardson provides support on "Bali Hai," trombonist Burditt on "Nature Boy." Trumpeter Mark Israel and trombonist / music director Scott Crump are front and center on "Sunflower," Sweum, Gustafson and De Almeida on "Yesterday's Tomorrow." While all the charts are keenly drawn, the pick of the litter are the multi-colored "Yesterday's Tomorrow" (with Gustafson on electric piano) and especially Janus' "Collateral Duty Blues," an irrepressible swinger that keeps the blues well hidden behind its sunny disposition. Soloists are Janus (alto), Gustafson, trombonist Randy Schneider and bassist Jason Crowe. "Sharing the Freedom" (solos by Crowe and Sweum) wraps things up in an earnestly patriotic package.

No, they aren't the Airmen of Note, but as this superb recording affirms, the Falconaires can play on the same field and hold their own in any skirmish. As with the University of North Texas' One O'Clock and Two O'Clock Lab Bands, the differences between them are so trivial that they are hardly worth mentioning. What is worth imparting is that Sharing the Freedom is (pardon the nautical term) ship-shape from stem to stern and would be easily recommended if it were available to the general public, which, regrettably, it is not.

University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire

A Gentleman Named John

Sea Breeze Vista

2011

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