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Fred Hess Big Band: Speak

Florence Wetzel By

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In the liner notes to Speak, saxophonist/band leader Fred Hess makes an important point: although the golden era of traveling big bands is long past, the big band format lives on in school ensembles, as well as through individuals such as himself, whose love for this format plows right through all the logistical difficulties. Anyone seeking proof that big bands are flourishing need only listen to this third CD by the Fred Hess Big Band: all six songs are multifaceted gems, delectable panoramas of sound that continue to blossom with subsequent listening.

Part of being a big band leader is assembling the right talent, which is something that Hess has excelled at ever since founding the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble in 1981. On Speak, Hess has gathered the cream of Colorado's jazz musicians, including trumpeters Ron Miles and Alan Hood, saxophonists John Gunther and Peter Sommer, bassist Greg Garrison and pianist Marc Sabatella, plus former Colorado resident Tyler Gilmore, who contributes his conducting gifts. And in an embarrassment of riches, Hess has included two special guests, trombonist John Fedchock and drummer Matt Wilson. Altogether, the big band has seventeen members and it's testament to the group's talent, as well as Hess' formidable compositional skill, that the music is so exquisitely cohesive, not to mention downright swinging.

The liner notes provide details about the inner workings of each tune, but the songs' intricacies never weigh down their melodic flight. For example, "Blues for Bonnie Belle" is a sophisticated bi-tonal twelve-bar blues, but it's also an affectionate tribute to Hess' dog. "How 'Bout Now" is an elegant dance of motivic fragments, full of flavors and colors, and "Finding the Evidence" is an enjoyable game of hide-and-seek with the theme from pianist Thelonious Monk's "Evidence." "Speak to Me" is a majestic and touching arrangement of guitarist Tommy Walker's praise song, and "Chutes and Ladders" is a lively tune inspired by saxophonist Bob Berg's harmonic language, with beautifully soaring lines from the various sections.

In a CD full of outstanding songs, the sixteen-minute "Psalm to Hymn" is the tour de force. This is Hess' tribute to John Coltrane, and like the saxophonist, the song moves easily from swinging and classic, to stately and majestic, and finally to wild and raucous. The abundant solos give further evidence of the excellent cast of musicians: there are nimble solos by Sabatella and Fedchock; a gorgeous bass-and-drum duet with Garrison and Wilson; and, toward the end, Gunther takes up the great man's mantle and throws down a dazzling array of scorching lines. The song is an intoxicating blend of meticulous craftsmanship and spontaneous expression—just like Coltrane himself.

Speak is a tremendous achievement, a gourmet meal of sound concocted by seventeen fine musicians. The Fred Hess Big Band proves that the big band format is still possible, even in the twenty-first century, and still remains as thrilling as ever.

Track Listing: Blues for Bonnie Belle; How ’Bout Now; Speak to Me; Chutes and Ladders; Finding the Evidence; Psalm to Hymn.

Personnel: John Gunther: alto saxophone; Wil Swindler: alto saxophone; Fred Hess: tenor saxophone; Peter Sommer: tenor saxophone; Mark Harris: baritone saxophone; Pete Olstad: trumpet; Dave Rajewski: trumpet; Al Hood: trumpet; Ron Miles: trumpet; John Fedchock: trombone; Nelson Hinds: trombone; Hoyt Andres: trombone; Gary Mayne: bass trombone; Marc Sabatella: piano; Greg Garrison: bass; Matt Wilson: drums; Tyler Gilmore: conductor.

Title: Speak | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Alison

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