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Skelton Skinner All Stars / Clare Fischer Big Band / Ron Carter's Great Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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Skelton Skinner Allstars Big Band

Cookin' with the Lid On

Diving Duck Records

2012

Back in the late 1950s, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs (with some help from his friends) put together an ensemble that became known as the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, took up residence in Hollywood and began blowing audiences away at the Summit, Seville and Sundown nightclubs. The band numbered in its ranks such renowned West Coast musicians as Conte Candoli, Richie Kamuca, Frank Rosolino, Bill Perkins, Pete Jolly, Al Porcino, Charlie Kennedy, Bob Enevoldsen, Jack Nimitz, Mel Lewis, Buddy Clark, Stu Williamson, Joe Maini, Lou Levy, Bobby Burgess and others, who grooved nightly on dazzling arrangements by Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Bob Brookmeyer and Med Flory. When the group ended its run in 1962, most big-band enthusiasts thought they'd never see its like again. On the other hand . . .

Along come Great Britain's irrepressible Skelton Skinner All Stars and suddenly, in the words of Richard and Karen Carpenter's hit song from 1973, it's Yesterday Once More. Although the SSAS clearly aren't the Dream Band (see personnel list above), they come about as close as any group you're likely to hear, and their debut album, Cookin' with the Lid On, which reshapes music introduced by Gibbs' ensemble and includes seven of Holman's luminous charts, is almost like listening to the Dream Band without the disconcerting audience noise. The All Stars, co-led by drummer Matt Skelton and saxophonist Colin Skinner, get right down to business on Holman's free and easy arrangement of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which precedes four more of his peerless charts: "Billie's Bounce," "Stardust" (featuring trumpeter Danny Marsden), "Sweet Lorraine" and the torrid Latin theme, "Tico Tico."

Vibraphonist Anthony Kerr, who does a creditable job sitting in for Gibbs (as does Skelton for the masterful Mel Lewis), is showcased on Albam's arrangement of "Sweet Georgia Brown," carries the melody on "Stardust" and solos trimly on half a dozen other numbers including the scampering finale, Holman's high-powered arrangement of "Day In, Day Out." Holman also arranged "The Song Is You," which embodies solos by Kerr and tenor saxophonist Olly Wilby. The other charts are by Lennie Niehaus ("It Could Happen to You") and Skinner ("Goodbye," "What Is This Thing Called Love"). Skinner's alto brightens and enhances on "It Could Happen," and there are brief but effective statements elsewhere by trumpeter The Osian Roberts/Steve Fishwick Quintet, trombonists Gordon Campbell and Richard Wigley, tenor Luke Annesley and guitarist Colin Oxley.

That pretty much covers the positives. On the flip side of the coin, this is for the most part music that has not only been heard before but was played and recorded by one of the most electrifying and talented big bands ever assembled. Those who have any or all of the half-dozen albums released by the original Dream Band may not be as moved by its contemporary version as those who do not. One more thing: the Skelton Skinner ensemble has squeezed eleven numbers into less than forty-five minutes, or a little more than half the playing time of a compact disc. While that leaves ample room to stretch, the soloists on Cookin' with the Lid On are by and large confined to a chorus or less. Yes, that was usually true of the Dream Band as well, but they were recording on LPs, where space was at a premium, not on CDs. The SSAS could have lengthened every solo by a factor of two or three and still had more than enough time to spare. Even so, what is there is high-grade, and those who may have missed the Dream Band and would like to hear its near-equivalent are in for a treat.

The Clare Fischer Big Band

Continuum

Clavo Records

2012

[Author's note: The following review was submitted to All About Jazz on January 28, one day after the multi-talented musician Clare Fischer died in California at age eighty-three. As the review had been completed earlier, it was written as though Fischer were still alive. Continuum has thus become the endmost crowning point in Fischer's long and illustrious musical career.]

In his long and celebrated career as a composer, arranger, bandleader and musician, Clare Fischer has done it all. That includes recording more than fifty albums, the most recent of which is Continuum, showcasing the Clare Fischer Big Band and (on one track) the thirty-member Clare Fischer Jazz Corps. The band is now conducted by Clare's son, Brent Fischer, who composed and arranged "Step Up" (performed by the Jazz Corps). The elder Fischer arranged the other numbers, wrote everything save Moacir Santos' "Coisa Numero Dois" and Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," and solos on electric piano on "In the Beginning" and "Cal's On."

The atmospheric "Coisa" is one of two extended numbers (more than ten minutes long); the other is Fischer's "Man Is No Damn Good," described by Brent as "an epic discourse on the ills of commercial society" that "blends influences from Charles Ives, Bela Bartok and Lee Konitz in the grand Fischer tradition." There is one short piece, "For Steve" (1:19), a tender homage written by the elder Fischer in memory of his friend, the late Steve Bohannon. The more extended "Blue Requiem" was inspired by Fischer's attendance at the funeral of drummer Jeff Porcaro, while "Stoltz" was written for another close friend, the world-class clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.

The album's even-tempered opener, "City by the Lake," commissioned by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, embodies a typically nimble solo by trumpeter Carl Saunders, and is followed by "In the Beginning," a big-band treatment of a theme originally written for flutist Hubert Laws' album of that name (solos by Fischer on piano, Lee Callet on baritone, Rob Verdi on "slide sax" [which sounds like an alto], Scott Whitfield on muted trombone, Bob Sheppard on alto sax and Alex Budman on alto clarinet). "Step Up," a bright-hued swinger, provides blowing space for alto Don Shelton, bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach, trombonist Whitfield, pianist Alan Steinberger, bassist Dave Stone, trumpeter Steve Huffsteter and Verdi on contrabass sax whose timbre is so low only bears can hear it, while "Coisa" enfolds weighty solos by tenor Rob Hardt and keyboardist Quinn Johnson.

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