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Frank Macchia: Saxolollapalooza

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Way in the background on some classic big band recordings, there is a high-pitched aural glow, a sustained, ethereal, almost liturgical hum coming from somewhere in the reeds section. Duke Ellington's "There Shall Be No Night," from the great Blanton/Webster Band box set (Bluebird, 1990), has it. Partly it's the recording technology of the time, sufficiently imperfect that your brain suspects it's hearing things that aren't there; partly it's the art of the arranger (Billy Strayhorn, of course, in the Ellington example), providing things that are there. It's one of the most transcendent sounds in jazz.

Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Frank Macchia's new saxophone sextet plus drums produces that sound on a couple of its slower- paced tracks, and on this brightly recorded session, it doesn't have anything to do with 1940s recording technology. That is one among many reasons to admire this record.

Another is Macchia's magisterial (and Grammy-winning) arrangements. Macchia has of late been arranging jazz chestnuts for the symphony orchestra, most recently on Landscapes (Cacophony, 2007). His gift for eliciting new harmonic details from familiar material is apparent in many numbers here, particularly the all-too-familiar "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Down By The Riverside."

Macchia is, furthermore, a fine tenor saxophonist with a decidedly R&B bent, an asset that makes more sense in this honking setting than with the symphony orchestras of earlier records: his unaccompanied, bluesy wail at the beginning of "Chariot" is just impeccable.

The leader's solos are generally great, but he does not hog the limelight. Among other standouts, Eric Marienthal has a fine alto moment on a lovely "Creole Love Song," while baritone saxophonist Gene Cipriano's turn on "My One and Only Love" may be the record's finest moment. It is surely the best track, a sublime arrangement that recalls the emotional depths the World Saxophone Quartet brought to "Lush Life" (from World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington, Nonesuch, 1986), and these guys bring two more horns to the equation than did the WSQ.

Those who know drummer Peter Erskine from his long stint with Weather Report may be surprised by the suppleness with which he digs into a vigorous New Orleans second-line rhythm.

Saxolollapalooza will appeal mainly to devotees of pre-Parker jazz; Macchia and company are not trying to be hip like The Bad Plus or [em]. But the record's appeal may indeed be broader. With a set list that would sit well with the moldy figs—Al Hirt, Duke Ellington, "Down By The Riverside" and Dixieland classics—diehard traditionalists would remain nonplussed by a Michael Jackson tune, the reconfiguration of "That's A-Plenty" as a samba, or the smart funkification of Benny Goodman's "Air Mail Special."

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