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


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


Clavo Records


[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.

The lively "Cal's On," writes Brent Fischer, lay for years on his dad's piano as a single intriguing melody line on a piece of paper until Brent finally "persuaded" Clare to "write down the chords, dammit!" It's good that he did, as this is one of the album's sundry highlights, taped perhaps twenty or more years ago with Clare on keyboards and Brent on vibes. Although "No Damn Good" strays at times from the lineal road (there's even a brief bow to Brahms' lullaby), it houses perceptive solos by Stout, Budman and trombonist Andy Martin. The dirge-like "Blue Requiem," also taped some years ago, precedes the buoyant finale, "Stoltz," a well-built vehicle for Budman's clarinet and Reichenbach's valve trombone.

Even though not all the music on Continuum is fresh from the oven, that doesn't mean it is any less appetizing than today's main courses. There's an abundance of meat on this frame, and most of it is Grade A, thanks to Clare Fischer's exemplary compositions and arrangements and his capacity to enlist the finest musicians southern California has to offer. Fischer, now in his eighty-third year, may be slowing down a bit (his health has not been good) but as Continuum shows, he's not yet ready to throw in the towel or wave a white flag.

Ron Carter's Great Big Band

Ron Carter Big Band



Even with a name as well-known as bassist Ron Carter's, if you plan to build your first album as leader of your own big band around such enduring themes as "Caravan," "St. Louis Blues," "Opus One," "Con Alma," "Sail Away" and "Line for Lyons," you'd better have something fresh and exciting to bring to the table. Luckily, that poses no problem for Carter's Great Big Band, which relies for the most part on superior musicianship and listener-friendly arrangements by music director Robert Freedman to frame its musical blueprint.

Carter's sidemen hail from the New York City area, which is in itself a form of quality control, a trait that is further enhanced by the presence in every section of seasoned pros, many of them leaders in their own right, whose splendid resumes speak for themselves. Glancing only at the rhythm section, they don't come much better than Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. That's a rock-solid foundation on which to build, and the ensemble uses it to its utmost advantage. That's especially true on such indelible essays as Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal Triangle," Nat Adderley's "Sweet Emma," Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" or John Lewis' "The Golden Striker." Completing the program are Carter's sensuous "Opus 1.5" and scuffling "Loose Change" and Freedman's lean and succulent "Pork Chop."

"Pork Chop" follows "Caravan" and "Eternal Triangle," which set the scene with spirited blowing by the ensemble and agile solos by soprano Jerry Dodgion ("Caravan"), tenor Scott Robinson, trombonist Jason Jackson and baritone Jay Brandford ("Triangle"). Carter and tenor Wayne Escoffery are the soloists on "Pork Chop," Carter, flugel Tony Kadleck and English hornist Charles Pillow on "Opus 1.5." Miller and Carter shine with trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto Steve Wilson on "Con Alma," with Escoffery and trombonist James Burton III on "Sail Away," and with trumpeter Alex Norris and bass trombonist Douglas Purviance on "Opus One." Escoffery, Norris and Brandford are center stage on the gospel-tinged "Sweet Emma," Dodgion (alto), Robinson and Burton on "St. Louis Blues," Wilson and Miller on the lyrical "Line for Lyons," Jackson, Gisbert and Miller on "Footprints." Trombonist Steve Davis strides to the forefront alongside Burton and Wilson on "Golden Striker," and with Dodgion (soprano) on "Loose Change."

It's not often—well, perhaps never—that a celebrated seventy-four-year-old jazz musician launches and completes his first big-band recording. In Ron Carter's case it is an enterprise that was long overdue but well worth the wait. Carter's Great Big Band sets its course on living up to that name, and for the most part succeeds. This is a luminous, plain-spoken session whose inapt moments are negligible. In other words, any censure of Carter or his band is essentially bass-less.

The Frank Griffith Big Band

Holland Park Non-Stop



Oregon-born Frank Griffith Nonet, who has made his home in England since 1996 and become known there as a top-drawer musician and educator (he is director of performance in the School of Arts at Brunel University), has long had a desire to record as leader of a big band playing his compositions and arrangements, and here it is—Holland Park Non-Stop, a non-stop anthology of big-band singularity and swing at its straight-ahead best. Griffith wrote four of the eleven numbers and arranged them all, keeping his well-rehearsed ensemble on its collective toes with a series of well-drawn charts that demand their unbroken tenacity and awareness (for a graphic example, dig the high-powered "Ricochet").



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