Having no idea what to expect from an ensemble labeled the Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra, the game plan must be to advance with caution, as any orchestra with trumpeter Bill Warfield at the helm can't be all bad. After listening, it becomes clear that the game plan was sound and the premise accurate: Smile, the HKFO's second recording, isn't all bad. The question is: did Warfield and the orchestra have its own game plan? If snatching every ingredient within reach and throwing it into a blender embodies a plan, mission accomplished. In any case, Warfield and the ensemble do whatever they can to achieve their goal, which is "to produce a brand of music that defies boundaries."
As one might envision, there is an abundance of funk, essentially in the form of heavy backbeats and granular riffs, underscoring (on half of the album's dozen tracks) vocals by Jane Stuart, Julie Michels or Carolyn Leonhart. The session opens and closes with Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," the first respectably sung by Michels, the second an instrumental version enwrapping cogent statements by Warfield and Paul Shaffer on Fender Rhodes. Sandwiched between are a couple of fairly well-known tunes (Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," Kenny Ascher / Paul Williams' "Rainbow Connection") and eight original compositions including two by Warfield ("Dance of the Coal Cars," "Mad Dog 245"). It could be said that the martial "Theme from Law and Order" is also rather well-known, at least to fans of the long-running television series, although many of them may not recognize or appreciate this funk-heavy rendition.
Stuart is the vocalist on "Ode to Billie Joe" and a pair of errant and forgettable themes, "First Time on a Ferris Wheel" and "I've Got to Use My Imagination," Leonhart (depping for Kermit the Frog) on "The Rainbow Connection." The orchestra houses a number of talented soloists, and there are clever ad libs along the way by Lou Marini (tenor on "Billie Joe" and Joe Zawinul's "Cucumber Slumber," soprano on "Law and Order"), trumpeter John Eckert, alto Andrew Gould, tenor Dave Riekenberg, baritone Matt Hong, pianist Cecilia Coleman and guitarist Matt Chertkoff. In keeping with the over-all spirit of the enterprise, most are tailored to suit the orchestra's funky persona. Warfield takes four solos, three on trumpet ("The City Never Sleeps," Booker T. Jones' "Hip-Hug-Her," the closing "Smile"), the other on flugelhorn (the opening "Smile").
While the Hell's Kitchen Orchestra is proficient and its ambition commendable, this is hardly the sort of music that "defies boundaries." It is basically funk, which is neither fresh nor uncommon. On the other hand, if funk is your bagand you don't mind the intrusion of half a dozen vocalsthe HKFO plays that game about as well as any large ensemble you're likely to encounter.
Smile; Cucumber Slumber; Hip-Hug-Her; Ode To Billie Joe; First Time On A Ferris Wheel; Dance of the Coal Cars; Mad Dog; Rainbow Connection; I’ve Got To Use My Imagination; Theme From Law and Order; This City Never Sleeps; Smile
Bill Warfield: leader, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn
Jane Stuart: vocals (tracks 4,5 and 9)
John Eckert: trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew Gould: alto sax, flute
Dave Riekenberg: tenor sax, baritone sax, flute, clarinet
Matt Hong: baritone sax, alto sax, flute
Blue Lou Marini: tenor sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet
Matt Chertkoff: guitar
Cecilia Coleman: piano
Paul Shaffer: Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano
Steve Count: electric and acoustic bass
Scott Neumann: drums
Julie Michels track 1, Carolyn Leonhart track 8: guest vocalists
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