No, it is definitely not advisable to open a review with an unequivocal superlative (for one thing, it sort of gives the game away, doesn't it?). But on Special Kay!,
its ninth impressive album in twenty-four years, DIVAthe gold standard among all-female big bands since its inceptionreally gives a commentator no reasonable choice. Simply put, this is a mind-blowing live performance at the Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek, NY, that electrifies and satisfies from start to finish.
Perhaps one reason for the inspired endeavor is that the "Kay" in Special Kay!
symbolizes Stanley Kay, a drummer-turned-talent manager (and entertainment director for the New York Yankees) who in 1990 approached another drummer, Sherrie Maricle
, with the idea of forming an all-woman band. Two years later, DIVA made its widely-praised debut, and the rest, as they say, is history. Kay remained a driving force behind the orchestra until his passing in June 2010. Now, some six years later, DIVA pays tribute to its fallen leader by performing ten of his admirable compositions, several of which had never before been recorded. To underscore its import, Special Kay!
marks the first time DIVA has ever produced an album of all-original themes.
Among Kay's clients was the renowned tap-dancing trio Hines, Hines & Dad, and he wrote the flamboyant opener, "Did You Do That?" for Maurice and Gregory Hines' mother, Alma, who often asked that question after an especially intricate dance routine. The irrepressible barn-burner features a blistering duel between tenors Roxy Coss
and Janelle Reichman
who moves to clarinet to solo with trumpeter Tanya Darby
on the strapping yet melodious "Nothin,'" trimly arranged by bassist Noriko Ueda
. All trumpets are muted (and all solo) on "To Sweets with Love," Kay's loping homage to trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison
, which precedes another brisk flag-waver, "Where's the Food?," a question Kay always insisted was the first one asked by band members at every gig. Emphatic solos courtesy of baritone Lisa Parrott
, trombonist Deborah Weisz
and pianist Tomoko Ohno
So far, an avalanche of exhilarating big-band jazz, and we haven't even reached the halfway mark. Ohno and trombonist Jennifer Krupa are front and center on the seductive "Give Me Your Love," altos Leigh Pilzer
and Sharel Cassity
on Scott Whitfield
's snappy arrangement of the fast-moving "How Ya Doin'?" Reichman (clarinet), Krupa (muted) and trumpeter Jami Dauber
(also muted) brighten John J. DiMartino
's swinging arrangement of "You Made a Mistake," after which Maricle assumes command on "The Brush Off," written especially for her by Kay to showcase her remarkable dexterity with brushes. "Special Kay," a charming bossa arranged by Ueda on which Cassity (flute) and trumpeter Barbara Laronga
shine, leads to the roaring finale, "Three Sisters and a Cousin," Kay's answer to Jimmy Giuffre
's "Four Brothers" and the first chart ever written by him for DIVA. As one would surmise, the saxophones are ascendant, with volcanic solos by all hands.
Maricle closes the concert, appropriately, by exclaiming "We love you, Stanley Kay!" It's a love that is self-evident in almost every measure of this sensational album, arguably the pinnacle in a long line of splendid recordings by this prodigious orchestra, and one that is indeed Special
in every way. Five stars all around: for concept, arrangements, execution, aerial balancing without a net, and especially for an abundance of ardor and esprit de corps.