When listening to the Mica Bethea Big Band's generally admirable two-CD set, Stage 'n Studio, the first thought is, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" That query is immediately replaced by a second thought: "Perhaps someone has and we simply overlooked it." In either case, Bethea's decision to perform (basically) the same material in a recording studio and in front of an audience was clearly inspired. That the result is somewhat less so is no fault of Bethea or the band.
Indeed, Bethea's compositions and arrangements are charming and resourceful, and his Florida-based ensemble performs them with dexterity and assurance, in concert and in studio. The album's main stumbling block, if indeed it can be seen as such, lies elsewhere, more specifically with less than adequate balance among sections and indifferent sound quality, a blemish that, counter to what one might assume, is more prominent in the recording studio than it is onstageeven though the audio in either case is no more than a step or so above passable. The upshot is music that sounds more confined than unfettered, in spite of the fact that Bethea and the band are working overtime to make it shine.
The ensemble opens on a lively note on both sessions with Herbie Hancock's "Hang Up Your Hang Ups," propelled smartly forward by m: James Hogan's guitar and Stan Piper's electric bass, leading to resourceful solos by baritone saxophonist Mike Emmert, pianist Joshua Bowlus and trumpeter Dave Champagne. Soprano Todd DelGuidice is showcased on Bethea's well-grooved "Jonesin' for Thad," trombonists Gina Benalcazar, Lance Reed and Corey Wilcox on his handsome arrangement of the standard "Tenderly" (in studio), set to an elegant Latin beat. The emphatic "Frahm Out of Nowhere" is Bethea's bow to saxophonist Joel Frahm, "Coal" a prancing throwback to the bop era whose fluent solos are by tenors Eric Riehm and Juan Carlos Rollan.
Linda Cole sings the Gershwin brothers' "Our Love Is Here to Stay" on both discs, as well as Harold Arlen / Ted Koehler's "Stormy Weather" in concert. Let's say that Bethea's charts are splendid and leave it at that. The leader's laid-back and lustrous "Birth Rite," placed third on the concert program, follows in studio (with Bowlus' expressive piano featured on both versions), after which Tom Schuman's spry and gladsome "Wind Warriors" wraps up the studio and concert sections. Among the eight studio selections only one ("Tenderly") is not repeated in concert, with "Stormy Weather," Gary Willis' assertive "Self Defense" and Bethea's fresh take on the standard "Just Friends" (featuring trumpeter Scott Dickinson and alto Daniel Dickinson) added for the concert audience.
Before closing, a more explicit portrait of Bethea himself, who is quoted as saying, "Life gives you challenges that you just have to work with and move on," seems warranted. One of the wee "challenges" Bethea has had to face is that an auto accident in 2005 left him without the use of his legs, confined forevermore to a wheelchair. Since then, Bethea has not only earned a master's degree from the University of North Florida, he has formed a big band and written and arranged much of its material. Remarkable? Yes, but more a tribute to the human spirit than anything miraculous. Stage 'n Studio is performed (and performed quite well) by the Mica Bethea Big Band, for which Bethea wrote four original compositions and arranged almost everything on that notable two-disc recording. Setting aside the generally unimpressive sound quality, both sessions are unremittingly persuasive and well worth seeking out and hearing.
STUDIO: Hang Up Your Hang Ups*; Jonesin' For Thad**; Tenderly*; Frahm Out
Of Nowhere*; Coal**; Our Love Is Here To Stay**; Birth Rite**; Wind
Warriors*. STAGE: Hang Up Your Hang Ups; Jonesin' For Thad; Birth Rite; Frahm
Out Of Nowhere; Self Defense; Stormy Weather; Just Friends; Our Love Is Here
To Stay; Coal.
STUDIO: Greg Balut, Ray Callender, Jay Forman*, Dave Champagne*, Jonathan
Ward**, Robert Vandiver**: trumpet; Ryan Bricknell, Corey Wilcox, Lance Reed,
Michael Nunez*: trombone; Gina "Badeeduh" Benalcazar: bass trombone; Todd
DelGiudice: alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Daniel Dickinson: alto sax,
flute, clarinet; Juan Carlos Rollan: tenor sax, flute; Jose Rojas*: tenor sax, flute,
clarinet; Eric Riehm**: tenor sax, clarinet; Mike Emmert: baritone sax, bass
clarinet; Josh Bowlus: piano, Rhodes; James Hogan, guitar; Stan Piper*, Dennis
Marks: bass; John Lumpkin Jr: drums; Terry "Doc" Handy: percussion; Aaron
Lehrian**: piano, string synthesizer; Ryan Slatko*: vibes, percussion, piano;
Linda Cole: vocals. STAGE: Balut, Champagne, Scott Dickinson, Ward,
Callander: trumpet; Bricknell, Wyatt Thomas, Reed: trombone; Benalcazar, bass
trombone; DelGiudice: alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Daniel Dickinson:
alto sax, flute, clarinet; Rollan: tenor sax, flute; Rojas: tenor sax, flute, clarinet;
Emmert: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Bowlus: piano, Rhodes; Steve Gallatin:
guitar; Marks: bass; Lumpkin: drums; Handy: percussion; Jonah Pierre, vibes,
percussion; Linda Cole, vocal.