A pair of hard–hitting big–band sessions by Philadelphia’s City Rhythm Orchestra, the most recent of which, Swingin’ Blue,
we’ll survey first, as it showcases one of Philly’s favorite sons, the dynamic young organist Joey DeFrancesco. Blue
was recorded nearly four years ago (September ’97) before an understandably enthusiastic audience at the City of Brotherly Love’s Five Spot nightclub. Inviting someone as awesome as Joey D to sit in with the orchestra has its upside and its down. On the one hand, he’s a marvelous player who always pumps up the excitement meter; on the other, he dominates every selection on which he appears (all but “Big Swing Face” and “The Heat’s On”) to the extent that the album’s title could be amended to read “Joey DeFrancesco and some other guys.” A slight exaggeration, perhaps, as the orchestra gives a good account of itself on each number, even though the recording itself is short on clarity and sharpness — but there’s no question that Joey D’s the trump card in this deck. City Rhythm’s soloists, none of whom is shabby, are listed in the booklet’s fine print. They include trumpeters Ken Brader and Bob Gravener, tenor Wendell Hobbs and alto John Guida, with Hobbs especially chipper (but poorly recorded) on Neal Hefti’s “Whirly Bird” and Gravener taking wing on “A Night in Tunisia.” No guitar is listed among the personnel, but there are splendid guitar solos (by Greg Kettinger, perhaps?) on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Apple Honey,” “Big Swing Face,” “Tunisia” and “Caravan.” Joey D has the spotlight to himself on “Moanin’,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and Elmer Bernstein’s film showpiece, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
On Goin’ to Town one has a chance to hear how the City Rhythm Orchestra sounds without DeFrancesco (or did when this studio date was recorded, in June–July 1994) — and on balance it sounds pretty good. The program is divided equally between instrumentals and vocals, with the latter handled by baritone Steve Ritrovato who’s no Ray Charles (“Georgia on My Mind”), Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”) or Joe Williams (“Alright, Okay, You Win”) but has his own winning way with a song. The orchestra sounds more polished but a touch less exuberant in a studio setting, goin’ to town full–throttle only on Joe Matt’s title selection, which closes the album. While one doesn’t necessarily yearn for DeFrancesco, there’s no doubt he’d have elevated the temperature. The solos on Goin’ to Town are relatively brief and perfunctory, with no one given enough space in which to develop fully his prefatory thesis. Matt’s crystalline trumpet is featured on his arrangement of “Melancholy Rhapsody” (from the film Man with the Golden Arm ) but he plays more in the vein of a Ray Anthony or Doc Severinsen than, say, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. “Rhapsody” is followed by a showcase for the trombone section, Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” (but with no solos). This is a respectable big–band session whose basic appeal lies in its sturdy ensemble work and a number of nicely grooved charts (“Sing Sing Sing,” “As Time Goes By,” “Like Someone in Love,” “I’m Standin’ Pat,” “Goin’ to Town”).
Contact:City Rhythm Orchestra, 2450 Turner Road, Willow Grove, PA 19090; 215–551–1086. Web site, www.cityrhythm.com