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Keith Ellis and the Sessions Big Band: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise / Tribute

Jack Bowers By

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I don’t ordinarily review discs I have to buy, but April has been an especially slow month for new big- band releases, enabling me to bend the rule temporarily and salute the late trombonist Keith Ellis, who led the Missouri-based Sessions Big Band and died only a few days after the most recent of these albums was recorded. I don’t know if the inclusion of Bob Mintzer’s composition “Tribute” and the album’s title were superimposed or coincidental, but they are certainly appropriate. Ironically, Ellis’ liner notes for the earlier disc, Morning Sunrise, are a eulogy to reedman Elmer Feltner, one of the band’s founding members, who died shortly before the recording was made and to whose memory it is dedicated.

The Sessions band, four years old when Morning Sunrise was recorded in December ’99, is a sturdy, swinging ensemble that performs quite well within its chosen realm of jazz and popular standards. Included are two compositions by Horace Silver, one by Thelonious Monk, Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk,” Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” the standards “Just Friends” and “Green Dolphin Street,” Sigmund Romberg / Oscar Hammerstein’s “Morning Sunrise” from the Broadway operetta The New Moon, and crooner Buddy Clark’s hit song from the late ’40s, “Linda.” The bang-up arrangements are by Lee Hyde (three), Tom Kubis, Bill King (two each), Bill Archer, Paul Westcott and Dan Eubanks.

There are a number of admirable soloists, most notably saxophonists Larry Smith and James Warfield Jr., trombonist Kurt Silver and trumpeters George Pierce and Randy Holmes. Ellis, who led the ’bone section, adds charming solos on “Girl Talk,” “Morning Sunrise” and “Green Dolphin Street.” Pianist Carolbeth True is an able accompanist, and the rhythm section (True, bassist Jay Hungerford, drummer Kevin Gianino) cooks with gusto. A lively and entertaining album.

The band nestles in a similar groove on Tribute with much the same result, complementing eight pleasurable standards with Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train,” Gene Roland’s “Formula SK32,” Willie Maiden’s “A Little Minor Booze,” Sammy Nestico’s “Wind Machine,” John Oddo’s “Especially for You” and Bob Mintzer’s vigorous title song. Trumpeter Pierce and saxophonist Larry Smith are no longer on board, but their successors, Dan Smith and Bill Archer, perform quite cabably, and the band has added a singer, Sherry Drake, who croons and scats on the standards “It Could Happen to You,” “But Beautiful” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” Pianist True continues to impress (soloing brightly on “Look for the Silver Lining,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Time After Time” and “Wind Machine”), as does the rhythm section as a whole. Warfield’s sleek soprano is featured on “Especially for You,” his buoyant tenor on “Night Train,” “It Could Happen,” “Who Can I Turn To” and “Wind Machine.”

Ellis is heard more often, soloing on the first four tracks, and there is further engaging commentary by trumpeters Holmes and Steve Schankman, bassist Hungerford, alto Mike Karpowicz, trombonists Tom Vincent and Dan Potter, tenor George Geschwend and guest pianist Kim Portnoy (“Tribute”). I don’t know what’s to become of the Sessions Big Band now that Ellis is no longer there to steer the craft, but I harbor the hope that others may put their shoulders to the wheel and keep it moving forward. We need more big bands of this caliber, not less.

Contact: Sessions Productions, 4407 Bristol Bend, High Ridge, MO 63049-3231. Phone 636-677-3600; fax 636-677-1543.

Visit Sessions on the web.

Track Listing: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

Personnel: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

Title: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise / Tribute | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Sessions


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