Stan Kenton Alumni Band / Dave Lisik Orchestra / New Zealand School of Music Big Band

Jack Bowers By

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Stan Kenton Alumni Band
Have Band Will Travel
Summit Records

There was a time (often referred to as "the good old days") when the phrase Have Band Will Travel would have been commonplace, as popular touring bands traversed the country on an almost daily basis to brave one-night stands or longer engagements in ballrooms, nightclubs, auditoriums or other venues. These days, one can count the number of traveling bands on the fingers of one hand and still have enough uncounted digits left to latch onto some fried chicken or corn on the cob.

Among the few exceptions to the rule is the Stan Kenton Alumni Band, formerly known as the Mike Vax Big Band Featuring Alumni of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Thanks mainly to Vax's tireless efforts, the band has visited a part of the country almost every year for more than a decade, and has produced almost half a dozen CDs embodying music performed on those tours. True, these aren't year-long excursions (one month at best, and usually more concise), but given the desolate position of big bands these days even that is quite a remarkable achievement. And for those on the receiving end of the band's performances, it's far better than nothing. For many, it represents their only exposure to a live big band playing music from the Stan Kenton era and beyond.

The fifteen selections on Have Band were recorded during the ensemble's 2009 spring tour in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As always, themes associated with the Kenton orchestra are interspersed with standards and exciting new charts by members of the band and others. The album opens on both fronts with Ray Wetzel's venerable "Intermission Riff," marvelously re-scored by Kim Richmond in the image of Supersax, using trombonist Carl Fontana's solo from the album Kenton In Hi Fi as the basis for a swinging new anthem. Solos are by tenor Alex Murzyn and bassist Chris Symer, tasteful introduction by pianist Liz Sesler-Beckman. Following trombonist Dale DeVoe's opulent arrangement of the ballad "Softly As I Leave You," the band performs the first of five original compositions, Paul Baker's incendiary "El Viento Caliente." The others are Rich Woolworth's impish "Five & Dime" (in 5/4 and 10/8 time),Steve Huffsteter's breezy "Joint Tenancy" (a.k.a "Alone Together," on which he and fellow trumpeter Don Rader happily share the premises), Eric Richards' free-wheeling "Crescent City Stomp" (performed twice, the second as a shorter "radio edit") and the late great pianist Bob Florence's "Our Garden," beautifully sung by Scott Whitfield and Ginger Berglund who also penned the lyrics.

The Kenton-inspired numbers are Johnny Richards' "Artemis and Apollo," Gerry Mulligan's aptly named "Swing House" and the standard "Long Ago and Far Away" (arranged for the Kenton orchestra by Lennie Niehaus). The other admirable charts are by Richards ("Tonight"), Richmond ("Invitation," on which he's the featured soloist on alto) and baritone Joel Kaye ("The Shadow of Your Smile"). Whitfield and Berglund reappear on Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Besides those already named, the band's engaging soloists include Kaye (enchanting on "Long Ago and Far Away"), trumpeter Vax, trombonists Whitfield and Roy Wiegand, tenor Pete Gallio, baritone Keith Kaminsky and drummer Gary Hobbs who anchors the sharp and sure-handed rhythm section.

Unlike other "road" albums, Have Band rarely endures the uneven sonic bumps that bedevil many concert performances. Hats off to engineer Tom Johnson for that. And hats off to Vax (Kenton class of 1970-72) and everyone in the band for producing such a marvelous recording under less than optimal conditions. As singer Toni Tennille writes in a brief tribute: "This CD is for all lovers of the innovative Kenton sound played by great musicians, and also for young Jazz musicians who will find so much to admire and learn from here." You couldn't sum it up much better than that.

Dave Lisik Orchestra
Coming Through Slaughter: The Bolden Legend
Galloping Cow Music

The springboard for this ambitious debut album by Canadian composer Dave Lisik is Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter, based on the life of the legendary New Orleans cornetist and bon vivant Charles "Buddy" Bolden. Using a modern approach, Lisik strives to renovate musically the threadbare tapestry of a bygone era in which Bolden is purported to have conceived the art form we know as jazz.

How does he fare? Quite well, actually. As with any thematic music, meaning is in the ear of the beholder, especially true when the source is nebulous, as it is in this case. However, using a twenty-five piece big band as his palette, Lisik manages to paint a credible albeit contemporary portrait of Bolden's life and times, his connection to the archaic origins of Jazz, and his gradual descent into madness (Bolden spent the last twenty-four years of his life in mental hospital). In doing so, Lisik leans heavily on the talents of trumpeter Tim Hagans, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Luis Bonilla and pianist Amy Rempel as paramount soloists, and on drummer Matt Wilson as the rhythm section's unyielding glue.

The song titles as well are meant to be suggestive, with each track save one based on a brief passage from Ondaatje's book. The exception is "Whistling in the Way of Bolden," whose random dissonance and contrapuntal escalation are designed to exemplify the phrase "ecstasy before death" (or "ecstacy," as it appears thrice in the booklet). As the album advances, the discord becomes more frequent and pronounced, as in the well-named "Horror of Noise," "Suicide of the Hands" or "Parade." While this may prove displeasing to some, it is in keeping with the album's purpose, which is to chronicle Bolden's slide into dementia. Besides Hagans, the soloists on "Noise" include tenors Art Edmaiston and Dustin Laurenzi and baritone Tom Link, who do so simultaneously in the best tradition of unfettered Jazz, as do Hagans, Bonilla and McCaslin on "Suicide." Bolden's depressing odyssey comes to an end in the two-part "Parade," in which the polarizing voices in his head cause him to stop playing in the middle of a parade and simply walk away, never to return. The song ends with an appropriate fade-out by pianist Rempel. The cheerless epilogue, "Bleach Out to Grey," is centered on the single known photograph of Bolden, whose negative (in Ondaatje's novel) is dissolved by the photographer in an acid bath.

Lisik deserves commendation for undertaking such a daunting enterprise, which he first envisioned as a doctoral dissertation in Canada (he has since moved to New Zealand to join the faculty at the New Zealand School of Music). Although one can't know how someone else would have handled the task, Lisik has completed it with flying colors—thanks in part to splendid support from Hagans, McCaslin, Bonilla, Wilson and the ensemble. It must be noted that the album won't suit everyone's taste; it is more cerebral than candid, and its jagged edges can stun the senses and fray the nerves. But Lisik is telling a story, parts of which are ambivalent musically, as they were in life. Weighed on its own terms, Coming Through Slaughter is a well-drawn and admirable work of art.

New Zealand School of Music Big Band
Run for Cover
Tbone Records

Under the steady guidance of music director Rodger Fox, The New Zealand School of Music Big Band has come a long way, and Run for Cover, its second CD, is explicitly engaging from start to finish. To further amplify the enterprise, Fox has enlisted the services of three well-known American guest artists—pianist Bill Cunliffe, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard and trumpeter Clay Jenkins—and three of his colleagues from the NZSM: guitarist Nick Granville, drummer Lance Philip and Alex Nyman, who plays EWI on Marcus Miller's funky title selection.

While every number is pleasing, the album's centerpiece is Cunliffe's bravura arrangement of the first movement from Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 on which he solos with Philip, tenor Mike Isaacs and trombonist Dean Scott. Cunliffe composed and arranged the swaying "Havana," Jenkins the lyrical "K & T," on which his agile trumpet is in the forefront. Sheppard is showcased on Bill Liston's "All Things Old and New" (a.k.a. "Body and Soul"), Granville on Don Sebesky's lustrous "Alcazar," trumpeter Alex French on Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford." There is one vocal, by Penelope Kibby, who sings passably on Horace Silver's urbane "Senor Blues."

The ensemble comes out swinging on Don Menza's suitably named "Groove Blues" and exits in similar fashion with Pete Jackson's vigorous "Mother Fingers." Rounding out the studio session is Dan Haerle's prismatic "Soul Mates," whose earnest solos are by alto Blair Clarke and guitarist Jeremy Hunter. The ensemble is trim throughout, the rhythm section sharp and well-knit. In his liner notes, Fox singles out engineer Talley Sherwood for well-deserved praise, as the over-all sound is clear and well-balanced. In sum, a splendid second outing by Fox and his able students from the NZSM.

Big Crazy Energy New York Band
Inspirations, Vol. 1
Rosa Records

In 2006, Norwegian-born trombonist Jens Wendelboe became a member of the Jazz / fusion group Blood Sweat & Tears, and the debut album by the New York-based version of his Big Crazy Energy Band clearly exemplifies that association. Any devotee of BS&T will certainly relish this lively studio session, which is marked by emphatic rock-beat modulations, intrepid brass flourishes and periodic reminders of yesteryear from Bill Heller's synthesizer.

Besides arranging everything, Wendelboe composed five of the album's nine selections, the brightest of which are the sensuous "Ear Trumpet" and nimble "Gloria's Step & More," the last co-written with the late bassist Scott LaFaro. Wendelboe also wrote "Boone Dog Café," "I Know, Later" (for his son Daniel) and "Seasons Wander" (lyrics by Gloria Rosa). Deb Lyons' breathy voice is engulfed by the band on "Seasons," rendering every other word incoherent. She scats briefly and ineffectively on "Later." As for Wendelboe, his five trombone solos are agreeable but his scat vocal on the charming Swedish folk song "Dear Old Stockholm" is ill-advised.

The session opens in a rock-centered groove with drummer Billy Cobham's "Pleasant Pheasant" and closes in like manner with Lennon / McCartney's "A Day in the Life." Completing the program is Joe Henderson's "Out of the Night," a walking blues with solos to match by Wendelboe, trumpeter Steve Jankowski and Dan Levin on euphonium. Heller's piano is featured on "Gloria's Step," the synthesizer on "Pheasant," "Boone Dog Café" and "Ear Trumpet." Tenors Mark Fineberg and Ken Gioffre have their say on "Pheasant" while trumpeter Vinnie Cutro is front and center on "Stockholm," alto Tom Timko, trumpeter Bob Millikan and tubaist George Flynn on "Boone Dog Café," Timko, flugel Chris Rogers and bassist David Anderson on "Ear Trumpet," Jankowski and Timko (flute) on "I Know, Later," Rogers (trumpet) and alto Mike Migliore on "A Day in the Life."

Wendelboe's band is first-class, and carries out its assignment with vitality and awareness. One's appreciation for the album may rest in part on his or her fondness for the sort of jazz / rock synthesis epitomized by groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears.

Vince Norman / Joe McCarthy Big Band
Bright Future
OA2 Records

Bright Future is the second recording by the admirable Vince Norman / Joe McCarthy Big Band, which is comprised for the most part of current or former members of armed service ensembles in the Washington, DC area (no less than fourteen from either the Airmen of Note, Army Jazz Ambassadors, Army Blues or Navy Commodores). Co-leader Norman serves as conductor, composer and arranger while McCarthy is the band's stalwart drummer / percussionist. Besides writing all save one tune on the album and arranging all of them, Norman plays a number of reed instruments, soloing on melodica ("Katelyn"), Bb soprano ("Connect the Dots"), tenor ("Bright Future"), alto and C soprano (Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar").

Speaking of "Sugar," Norman based his originals "Trilogy" and "Katelyn" on its chord changes, having composed both of them while still a teen-ager, then set them aside. It's good to hear them renewed in a big-band setting. "Katelyn," a graceful ballad dedicated to Norman's niece, is enriched by the melodica, which seems closely related to the Argentine bandoneon. There are other dedications—to Norman's wife, Amy ("For My Beloved"), saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. ("Super Grover") and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Shulz ("Goodbye Mr. Shulz"), which salutes as well the music from the Peanuts TV specials written by pianist Vince Guaraldi.

Rounding out the engaging program are the stout-hearted "Knight for a Day (The Dragon's Demise)," inspired by, of all things, a rogue plant growing in Norman's back yard, and the alacritous "Ah Dju Bah," on which Norman's son, Ray, earned "co-composer" credit by plinking out its candid five-note theme on the piano when he was two years old. Given its provenance, it's no surprise that the ensemble is poised and well-knit, while the rhythm section, with McCarthy galvanizing pianist Tony Nalker, guitarist Gary Malvaso and bassist Mike Pope, is in the best of hands. There's no shortage of persuasive soloists, either. Besides Norman and McCarthy, they include Nalker, Malvaso, trumpet / flugel Tim Stanley, trombonists Joe Jackson and Ben Patterson, tenors Luis Hernandez and Ben Bokor, soprano / alto Steve Williams, alto Andy Axelrad and baritone Rob Holmes.

Even though Norman is more about symmetry than unbridled force, there's no lack of firepower here, as one can appreciate in the up-tempo numbers. But the band can also play with finesse, as it proves on Norman's ballads and temperate songs. The Norman / McCarthy Band is a contemporary ensemble in the best sense of the term, moving the genre forward while respecting the traditions on which it rests. Bright Vision is a splendid follow-up to the band's earlier album, Words Cannot Express.

University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
Lab 2008
North Texas Jazz

Lab 2008 is the last recording overseen by the University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band director Neil Slater before he passed the reins to Steve Wiest after twenty-seven years in the saddle. Wiest becomes the ensemble's fourth director in its sixty-three year history. As is often the case with the One O'Clock Band, much of the music on 2008 was written and / or arranged by members of the ensemble to reinforce one composition apiece by Slater ("Separately Together") and Wiest ("Spirals").

Trombonist Sara Jacovino wrote "Ordinary Deviation" and "Lacuna" and cleverly revamped the children's song "Three Blind Mice," while trumpeter Evan Weiss composed the even-tempered "Song for Gabe" (which features tenor saxophonist Chris Bullock). Completing the program are Dave Richards' enigmatic "Mystical Journey," his splendid arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful" (showcasing the band's trombone section and alto Michel Machietto) and Bob Curnow's unerring translation of Pat Metheny's scorcher, "In the Heat of the Day."

Among the soloists, Bullock, Machietto, Jacovino ("Spirals," "Blind Mice") and Weiss (flugel on "Separately Together," trumpet on "Heat") are impressive, as are trumpeter Justin Stanton and tenor Isaac Lamar ("Ordinary Deviation"), Lamar and pianist Jiri Levicek ("Mystical Journey"), baritone Chris Mike and guitarist Tim Goynes ("Lacuna"), Bullock, alto John Leadbetter and drummer Ross Pederson ("Heat"). Levicek solos again on "Separately Together," Stanton on "Three Blind Mice." The rhythm section, anchored by Pederson and including Levicek, Goynes and bassist Ryan Hagler, is as steely or subtle as the occasion demands.

While there's no doubt that Slater will be missed at UNT, he has definitely parted company on a high note, upholding the lofty standards that have come to exemplify the UNT Jazz Studies program. Wiest clearly has his work cut out for him, but anyone who doubts he's up to the task need only listen to his debut recording with the band, Lab 2009, which was nominated for two Grammy Awards. The future is here at UNT, and it is in the best of hands.

Tracks and Personnel

Have Band Will Travel

Tracks: The New Intermission Riff; Softly As I Leave You; El Viento Caliente; Long Ago and Far Away; Artemis and Apollo; Five & Dime; This Could Be the Start of Something Big; Our Garden; Swing House; Tonight; Joint Tenancy; Invitation; The Shadow of Your Smile; Crescent City Stomp. Bonus track—Crescent City Stomp (radio edit).

Personnel: Mike Vax: leader, trumpet, flugelhorn; Dennis Noday, Paul von Adam, Steve Huffsteter, Don Rader: trumpet, flugelhorn; Kim Richmond: alto, soprano sax, flute; Pete Gallio, Alex Murzyn: tenor sax, flute; Keith Kaminski: alto, baritone sax, flute; Joel Kaye: baritone, bass sax, flute, bass flute; Roy Wiegand, Dale DeVoe, Scott Whitfield: trombone; Kenny Shroyer: bass trombone; Mike Suter: bass trombone, tuba; Liz Sesler-Beckham: piano; Chris Symer: bass; Gary Hobbs: drums; Dee Huffsteter: Latin percussion; Scott Whitfield, Ginger Berglund: vocals.

Coming Through Slaughter

Tracks: Coming Through Slaughter; Cricket Noises and Cricket Music; The Drawings of Audubon; Whistling in the Way of Bolden; Auditorium of Enemies; The Horror of Noise; Suicide of the Hands; In Exile; The Parade; Epilogue: Bleach Out to Grey.

Personnel: Dave Lisik: conductor, composer, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn; Joey Tartell, Marlin McKay, Ryan Imboden: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jack Cooper, Gary Topper: alto sax, flute, clarinet; Art Edmaiston, Dustin Laurenzi, Mike Krepper: tenor sax, clarinet; Tom Link: baritone, tenor sax, bass clarinet; Anthony Williams, John Grodrian: trombone; David Dick: bass trombone; Chris Vivio: tuba; Jeff Nielsen, Dan Phillips: horn; Corey Christiansen: guitar; Amy Rempel: piano; Jeremy Allen: bass; Matt Wilson: drums; Joe Galvin: cajon, hand percussion. Guest soloists—Tim Hagans: trumpet, flugelhorn; Donny McCaslin: tenor, soprano sax; Luis Bonilla: trombone.

Run for Cover

Tracks: Groove Blues; All Things Old and New; I Remember Clifford; Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, 1st Movement; Havana; Senor Blues; Run for Cover; K & T; Alcazar; Soul Mates; Mother Fingers.

Personnel: Rodger Fox: music director; Imogen Thirlwall, Alexis French, Slade Hocking, Matt Mulholland, Ben Hunt: trumpet; Chris Buckland: alto, soprano sax; Blair Clarke: alto sax, flute; Mike Isaacs: tenor sax, flute; Amity Alton-Lee: tenor sax; Michael Crawford: baritone sax, flute; Dean Scott, Joe Thomas, Richard Shirley, Mark Davey: trombone; Ben Robertson: bass trombone; Jeremy Hunter: guitar; Daniel Hayles: keyboards; Scott Maynard: bass; Lauren Ellis (1, 3, 8, 9, 11): drums, vibes (8); Callum Goldie (2, 5-7, 10), Lance Philip (4): drums; Penelope Kibby (6): vocal.

Inspirations, Vol. 1

Tracks: Pleasant Pheasant; Ack Varmland du Schona (Dear Old Stockholm); Seasons Wander; Boone Dog Café; Out of the Night; Ear Trumpet; I Know, Later; Gloria's Step & More; A Day in the Life.

Personnel: Jens Wendelboe: conductor, composer, arranger, trombone, scat vocal (2); Bob Millikan, Steve Jankowski, Rick Savage, Chris Rogers: trumpet; Tom Timko: alto, soprano, baritone sax (1, 9), flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Mike Migliore: alto sax; Mark Fineberg, Joey Berkley: tenor sax; Sam Bortka: baritone sax, bass clarinet (8); Dan Levine: trombone, euphonium; Charley Gordon: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone; Bill Heller, piano, synthesizer; David Anderson: electric bass; Lee Finkelstein: drums; Deb Lyons: vocal (3, 7).

Bright Future

Tracks: Knight for a Day (The Dragon's Demise); For My Beloved; Ah Dju Bah; Trilogy; Katelyn; Connect the Dots; Bright Future; Sugar; Super Grover; Goodbye Mr. Schulz.

Personnel: Vince Norman: co-leader, composer, arranger, Bb soprano, C soprano, alto, tenor sax, bass clarinet, melodica; Joe McCarthy: co-leader, drums, percussion; Chris Walker, Paul Armstrong, Greg Reese, Tim Stanley: trumpet; Steve Williams: alto, soprano sax, flute; Andy Axelrad: alto sax, flute; Luis Hernandez: tenor sax; Ben Bokor: tenor sax, flute; Rob Holmes: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Ben Patterson, Joe Jackson, Rhoades Whitehill, Dave Perkel (4): trombone; Major Bailey: bass trombone; Tony Nalker: piano; Gary Malvaso: guitar; Mike Pope: bass.

Lab 2008

Tracks: Spirals; Ordinary Deviation; The Mystical Journey; Lacuna; Song for Gabe; Separately Together; You Are Too Beautiful; Three Blind Mice; The Heat of the Day.

Personnel: Neil Slater: director; James Blackwell, Sean Foley, Matt Timm, Justin Stanton, Evan Weiss: trumpet; John Leadbetter, Michael Machietto, Isaac Lamar, Chris Bullock, Chris Mike: reeds; Victor Barranco, Sara Jacovino, Carl Lundgren: trombone; Jason Hausback, Benjamin Polk: bass trombone; Jiri Levicek: piano; Tim Goynes: guitar; Ryan Hagler: bass; Ross Pederson: drums.

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