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Swingin' on a Riff . . . Hangin' by a Thread?

Jack Bowers By

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"Weak End" sets the second half of the album on a course that is far more powerful than weak, as is Chuck Parrish's lead trumpet, not to mention bracing solos by Woods and Kaiser. Although the pace slows on "Hank Jones," the ambience is no less emphatic, nor are the spellbinding statements by Woods and Benson. Dietrich not only arranged the up-tempo "Pairing Off" but solos nicely to complement another well-aimed broadside by Woods. "Casanova" is an even-tempered bossa nova whose unhurried solos are by Woods and Bugher, after which "Blues for Lopes" rings down the curtain with a hard-swinging anthem that makes room for buoyant solos by Woods, baritone Adam Turman, trumpeter Kazumasa Terashima, trombonist Alex Wasily, altos Griffin and Hiebert, bassist Ulery and drummer Brooks.

The DePaul ensemble is splendid, as always, and no one would guess that Woods had marked his eightieth birthday only one week before the album was recorded. Let us hope that the invitation to return to DePaul remains open, and that Woods is able to perform and record with these well-schooled undergrads for many years to come.

Steve Owen
Stand Up Eight
OA2
2013

Beautiful music, marvelously performed and superbly recorded. Shouldn't that be enough? Perhaps so. Clearly, composer / arranger Steve Owen, director of the Jazz Studies program at the University of Oregon, had a definite game plan in mind as he envisioned his debut album, Stand Up Eight, subtitled "Music for Large Jazz Ensemble." The finished product encompasses seven of Owen's sophisticated compositions, one by Cole Porter ("Everything I Love") and another ("Kid A") by the group Radiohead, all of which were arranged by Owen. Several of the pieces were commissioned for other bands or events, which is indicative of Owen's standing among his peers.

While most of Owen's thematic devices adhere closely to well-worn paths, the tempestuous "State of the Union" may best be described as an experiment in sound whose acceptance rests in large measure on the equanimity of the individual listener. According to Owen, the song represents his attempt to "give a voice to the frustrations of the average, intelligent person striving to be heard over the din of @#$%^ parading as news and by a public unwilling to face reality." To do so, he employs the device of an off-stage supervisor whose pleas into a muted microphone go unheeded, overridden by the mandate of an orchestra with other goals to achieve. The end result is rather reminiscent of Ken Nordine's iconic Word Jazz.

The album's cryptic title is taken from its opening number, "Fall Down Seven, Stand Up Eight," an ode to perseverance in the face of adversity written for Owen's children (he doesn't say how many but there are more than one). It's a progressive, minor-key narrative that serves as a showcase for the splendid tenor saxophonist Don Aliquo and sets the stage for "As of Now," a song, says Owens, that "just feels good" (as do the solos by bassist Erik Applegate and trombonist Paul McKee), and "A Delicate Balance," a placid samba (or bossa) inspired by the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Clare Fischer. Clay Jenkins' linear trumpet is out front on the ballad "Still," a bow to Miles Davis, while baritone Wil Swindler, trombonist Dave Glenn and percussionist Brad Dutz have their say on the West African-influenced "One Voice." Owen's arrangement of "Everything I Love" is uncommon, to say the least, its shapely melody cleverly veiled beneath the trappings of "a dance scene from an old Hollywood musical" complete with tap routine (reproduced here by drummer Jim White) and inevitable fade to black. The multifaceted "Kid A," commissioned by Germany's Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band, embodies sinuous solos by Jenkins and tenor Peter Sommer. Soprano John Gunther then wraps things up with Owen's heartfelt anthem, "Following in Your Footsteps," wrtten for his father, Charles Owen.

Big bands, it should be noted, have come a long way since Basie, Ellington, Herman, Kenton and their peers were riding high. Stand Up Eight provides a credible glimpse into the mindset of today's big bands and the ways in which they are likely to evolve in years to come. Not everyone will appreciate the new template, nor should they. Those who do, however, may find the passage quite invigorating and pleasurable.

Bernt Rosengren Big Band
With Horace Parlan / Doug Raney
Caprice
2013

As a bandleader, Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren takes his cue from such masters of swing as Count Basie, and nowhere is that more apparent than on "Hip Walk," the opening number on this tasteful album whose freshness and well-defined sound belie the fact that it was recorded more than two decades ago, in 1980, five years after the band was formed. Rosengren solos on "Hip Walk" with his American guests, pianist Horace Parlan and guitarist Doug Raney, who are heard from on most of the nine tracks, seven of which were composed (and all arranged) by Rosengren.

On tenor, Rosengren really hits his stride on track 4, "The Humming Bees," adding strong solos on alto ("New Life," "Sad Waltz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?") and flute ("Joe and Eye"). Irving Berlin's "Ocean" is one of two songs not written by Rosengren; the other is John Coltrane's "Naima," another showcase for Rosengren's muscular tenor. Aside from Parlan, Raney and the leader, there is only one other solo, by trumpeter Lars Farnlof (muted) on Rosengren's "New Life." Saxophone great Lars Gullin's son, Peter, is in the band, playing alto sax, as is American trumpeter Tim Hagans, but neither of them solos.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Rosengren, he has been a pillar of the Swedish jazz scene for more than half a century, having played and recorded with almost every fellow countryman of note as well as American standouts such as Parlan, Raney, Don Cherry, George Russell, Lester Bowie and others. While some of those names exemplify Rosengren's later forays into more experimental music, there is none of that here—everything is straight-ahead and swinging in the most admirable big-band tradition. In fact, several of Rosengren's compositions are so fresh and charming they could easily be envisioned as jazz standards. If there's a downside it lies in the LP-length forty-three-minute playing time, as the album was recorded a couple years before the advent of the compact disc. On the other hand, none of the forty-three minutes is wasted time, as Rosengren, the band and their invited guests sparkle from start to finish.

Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra
Letter to a Friend
Art Beat Music
2013

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! This time, however, they arrive bearing "explosives" of a more salutary nature, the kind launched enthusiastically by St. Petersburg's dynamic three-year-old Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra on its splendid debut album, Letter to a Friend. It matters not where these Russians have been; it's simply wonderful to have them here, even if only on a recording. And while the name of guest saxophonist Igor Butman (who resides in St. Petersburg) will be the only one familiar to listeners in the U.S., that matters not either, as every chair and music stand in the orchestra should have the label "world-class" stamped across it.

That applies especially to co-leader / baritone saxophonist Serge Bogdanov who drafted the incandescent charts (all of them) and solos adroitly (with a touch of Mulligan) on "Letter to a Friend" and "September Boy." That the Russians have been listening closely to their American (and European and Asian) counterparts is undeniable, as ensemble passages are sharp and swinging throughout, the solos comparable to those heard in any big band from coast to coast and around the world. In fact, hearing the JPO for the first time is akin to panning for gold and suddenly unearthing a precious nugget. These gentlemen (and one lady, alto saxophonist Maria Art) even take Franz Gruber's timeworn hymn, "Silent Night," and transform it into big- band riches. What is most difficult to grasp is that these well-schooled musicians range in age from twenty-five to thirty!

Seven of the album's ten songs were written by Russians (four by the band's long-time mentor, Gennady Golshtein), the others by Gruber, Duke Ellington ("Love You Madly") and former Basie star Frank Wess ("You Made a Good Move"). Alexander Berenson composed the shuffling opener, "Desiderata" (which sounds nothing like the "Desiderata" I've heard before), whose agile soloists are Butman (tenor) and flugel Aleksey Dimitriev. Golshtein wrote the next four numbers — "Theme for Tima," "Letter to a Friend," "Sleeping Ships," "In the Westside"—and they are as admirable as any big-band charts you're likely to hear anywhere. Alto saxophonist Kirill Bubyakin solos with Bogdanov on "Letter," while pianist Andrey Zimovets is showcased on the seductive "Ships." The bop-inspired "Tima" encompasses bright solos by Zimovets, guest flugel David Goloschekin, tenor Juriy Bogatirev and drummer Egor Krukovskih; Zimovets, Bubyakin and Goloschekin share blowing space on the bright, fast-paced "Westside" (which sounds, as does "Letter to a Friend," not far removed from something Ernie Wilkins, Thad Jones, Sammy Nestico or Frank Foster might have written).

Goloschekin switches to vibes, Butman to soprano on Vasily Solovyov-Sedov's graceful "Evening Song," which precedes "Love You Madly" (played at an agreeable medium tempo with trim solos by Bubyakin and bassist Nick Zatolochniy) and Ruslan Khain's easygoing "September Boy" (Bogdanov, baritone; Konstantin Semenov, trombone). "Silent Night" is next up, followed by the loping finale, "Good Move," whose sharp solo moves are made by Butman (tenor) and trombonist Alex Kozlov. The Russians are indeed here, and it's a pleasure to welcome them, especially as Letter to a Friend is not only one of the more entertaining big-band albums of the year but one of the best-packaged as well, its solid hard-back cover enclosing splendid liner notes (in Russian and English) by Vladimir Feyertag along with play lists, photos and personnel. Here's an earnest round of applause for one Letter that is well worth reading.

Ian McDougall with String Orchestra
The Very Thought of You
Ten Mile Music Productions
2013

Ian McDougall, who has long been one of Canada's premier jazz trombonists, one who spent years enhancing Rob McConnell's peerless Boss Brass and more recently led his own big band way out west in Victoria, BC, had a notion to abandon temporarily the hustle and bustle of bop and post-bop jazz by producing an all-ballad album for trombone and strings, which is precisely what he has done with Everything Happens to Me, a fond look back at some notable evergreens from the Great American Songbook circa 1926-1961.

There are no brass or reeds here, only strings, rhythm and McDougall's burnished trombone brightening eight charts by Boss Brass alum Rick Wilkins and half a dozen more by McDougall himself. All of the songs, from the earliest ("Someone to Watch Over Me") to the most recent ("Moon River") should be familiar to anyone with even a passing awareness of popular music. There is almost no improvisation, as McDougall abides close to the melody throughout, embellishing the strings with his lyrical manifestos. The package is aimed explicitly toward those who are in the mood for resplendent music for listening or dancing. As such, it works unconditionally.

McDougall says he has wanted to record an album of ballads for more than a decade, adding in the liner notes that "for those of you with hair the same color as mine (white!), I have a feeling that this music will bring back fond memories." That's true, and there aren't many trombonists who could play the music with more warmth and elegance than McDougall.

In Smaller Packages . . .

Geof Bradfield
Melba!
Origin
2013

Like Madonna and Cher in the world of pop music, only one person comes to mind when the name Melba! surfaces in jazz. That would be composer / arranger / trombonist Melba Liston whose varied career spanned more than four decades and included memorable unions with Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and, most decisively, the pianist Randy Weston, with whom she recorded such iconic albums as Uhuru Afrika and African Sunrise. Liston (and Weston) made a lasting impression on a young would-be saxophonist named Geof Bradfield who recalls that "their music transcended craft; it felt like an adventure into unknown territory, even after a dozen hearings."

Bradfield never lost his admiration for Liston, and now, several decades onward, he has written a six-movement suite in her honor, commissioned by Chamber Music America and recorded by Bradfield's Chicago-based septet with vocalist Maggie Burrell added on the last number, "Let Me Not Lose My Dream," based on a text by the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. After opening with "Kansas City Child," a salute to Liston's home town, the suite moves to "Central Avenue" to depict the vibrant jazz scene in 1940s Los Angeles, renews Liston's kinship with "Dizzy Gillespie" and "Randy Weston," appraises her time as an arranger for Stax and Motown Records and in Jamaica writing and teaching for film and musicians on the reggae scene with "Detroit / Kingston," and applauds her triumphant return to the States ("Homecoming") to introduce her all-female big band at the Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1979. Sandwiched between "Weston" and "Detroit / Kingston" is Bradfield's three-minute "Solo Saxophone Introduction," about which he offers no commentary.

If creating diversity within a jazz context while underscoring Liston's perspective was Bradfield's aim, he has succeeded. Having done his homework studying Liston's scores at Columbia College's Center for Black Music, Bradfield has used that knowledge to fashion a suite that presents a vibrant picture of Liston's musical heritage against a backdrop of the times in which she lived. He makes good use of ensemble and soloists alike, showcasing trombonist Joel Adams on "Kansas City Child," trumpeter Victor Garcia and drummer George Fludas on "Dizzy Gillespie," pianist Ryan Cohan and bassist Clark Sommers on "Randy Weston," guitarist Jeff Parker on "Detroit / Kingston," and his own tenor sax on "Solo Saxophone Introduction." Melba was clearly a labor of love for Bradfield, an emotion that is communicated throughout by the leader and his talented ensemble.

Bruce Lofgren and Doug Livingston
Southwest Portals
Night Bird
2013

Southwest Portals is a series of even-tempered tone poems composed and arranged for his quartet by guitarist Bruce Lofgren. While the framework is more or less linked to jazz (there is some improvisation), the over-all vibe is more folk / western swing than bop or blues, thanks in part to Doug Livingston's steel pedal guitar, which evokes a cinematic "Sons of the Pioneers" mood. Even so, the songs are quite pleasant, the musicianship first-class. The presence of two guitars isn't superfluous, as they sound almost nothing alike, and Lofgren and Livingston are responsive musicians who play their roles with a minimum of fanfare, as do their colleagues, bassist Mike Flick and drummer Jack LeCompte.

This is for the most part music that would be right at home on a ranch or at a country music soiree. As Ed Leimbacher writes in the liner notes, "Prop your footwear up on the porch railing, check your unwelcome baggage on the event horizon, catch hold of that road-tested rain mirage, and drift through this Portal of Southwest Dreams to—whatever you hear." What you will hear and appreciate are eight tasteful themes by Lofgren and another "co-written" by J.S. Bach ("Prairie Fugue"), admirably performed by the quartet.

Even though the music lingers on the outskirts of jazz, Lofgren and his mates are no doubt doing what pleases them. And while it may please many others who choose to traverse that path, die-hard jazz fans should look elsewhere.


Tracks and Personnel

Right to Swing

Tracks: Rights of Swing: Prelude / Ballad / African Violets / Scherzo / Finale; Weak End; Hank Jones; Pairing Off; Casanova; Blues for Lopes.

Personnel: Bob Lark: director; Phil Woods: alto sax; Chuck Parrish: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tom Klein: trumpet, flugelhorn; *David Kaiser: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paul Dietrich: trumpet, flugelhorn; Kazumasa Terashima: trumpet, flugelhorn; *Mark Hiebert: alto, soprano, baritone sax, clarinet; *Brent Griffin: alto, soprano sax, flute; *Sean Packard: tenor sax, clarinet; Michael Plankey: tenor sax, clarinet; Adam Turman: baritone sax, bass clarinet; *Andy Baker: trombone; Kody Glazer: trombone; Alex Walsh: trombone; Bryan Tipps: bass trombone; *David Bugher: vibraphone; Kevin Brown: guitar; *Pete Benson: piano; *Matt Ulery: bass; *Keith Brooks: drums; Juan Pastor: percussion. (*Denotes member of the Phil Woods Ensemble at DePaul University.)

Stand Up Eight

Tracks: Fall Down Seven, Stand Up Eight; As of Now; A Delicate Balance; Still; One Voice; Everything I Love; State of the Union; Kid A; Following in Your Footsteps.

Personnel: Steve Owen: composer, arranger; Dan Gailey: conductor; John Davis: trumpet, flugelhorn; John Adler: trumpet, flugelhorn; Clay Jenkins: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brian McWhorter: trumpet, flugelhorn; Todd DelGuidice: alto, soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; John Gunther: alto, soprano sax, flute; Don Aliquo: tenor sax, flute; Peter Sommer: tenor sax, clarinet; Wil Swindler: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Nat Wickham: trombone; Paul McKee: trombone; Dave Glenn: trombone; Gary Mayne: bass trombone, tuba; Steve Kolvalcheck: guitar; Dana Landry: piano; Erik Applegate: bass; Jim White: drums, percussion; Brad Dutz: percussion, marimbas.

With Horace Parlan / Doug Raney

Tracks: Hip Walk; New Life; How Deep Is the Ocean; Joe and Eye; The Humming Bees; Naima; Autumn Song; Sad Waltz; Blues Nerves.

Personnel: Bernt Rosengren: leader, composer, arranger, alto, tenor sax, flute; Bertil Lovgren: trumpet; Tim Hagans: trumpet; Maffy Falay: trumpet; Lars Farnlof: trumpet; Lennart Aberg: alto, tenor sax, flute; Peter Gullin: alto sax; Stefan Isaksson: tenor sax; Tommy Koverhult: tenor sax; Gunnar Bergsten: baritone sax; Stanislav Cieslak: trombone; Lars Olofsson: trombone; Nils Landgren: trombone; Sven Larsson: bass trombone; Hakan Nyquist: French horn; Horace Parlan: piano; Doug Raney: guitar; Torbjorn Hultcrantz: bass; Leif Wennerstrom: drums.

Letter to a Friend

Tracks: Desiderata; Theme for Tima; Letter to a Friend; Sleeping Ships; In the Westside; Evening Song; Love You Madly; September Boy; Silent Night; You Made a Good Move.

Personnel: Kirill Bubyakin: co-leader, alto sax, flute; Serge Bogdanov: co-leader, arranger, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Roman Rogkov: trumpet; Serge Margolin: trumpet; Akeksey Dmitriev: trumpet; Roman Kvachev: trumpet; Maria Art: alto sax (2-8, 10); Andrey Blinchevskiy: alto sax (1, 9); Juriy Bogatirev: tenor sax; Vyacheslav Ipatov: tenor sax; Konstantin Semenov: trombone; Alex Kozlov: trombone; Pavel Tsigankov: trombone; Valentin Patsuk: trombone; Andrey Zimovets: piano; Nick Zatolochniy: bass; Gregoriy Voskoboynik: bass (1, 9); Egor Krukovskih: drums. Special guests—David Goloschekin: flugelhorn, vibraphone; Igor Butman: tenor, soprano sax.

The Very Thought of You

Tracks: The Very Thought of You; Everything Happens to Me; Someone to Watch Over Me; You Go to My Head; Smile; That Old Feeling; Embraceable You; Polka Dots and Moonbeams; I'm Through with Love; But Beautiful; Nevertheless; Moon River; Try a Little Tenderness; It Had to Be You.

Personnel: Ian McDougall: trombone, arranger; Rick Wilkins: arranger; Oliver Gannon: guitar; Ron Johnson: piano; Neil Swainson: bass; Craig Scott: drums; Roger Cole: solo oboe. String orchestra led by Rebecca Whitling.

Melba!

Tracks: Kansas City Child; Central Avenue; Dizzy Gillespie; Randy Weston; Solo Saxophone Introduction; Detroit / Kingston; Homecoming; "Let Me Not Lose My Dream."

Personnel: Geof Bradfield: tenor, soprano sax, bass clarinet; Victor Garcia: trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion; Joel Adams: trombone; Jeff Parker: guitar; Ryan Cohan: piano; Clark Sommers: bass; George Fludas: drums, percussion; Maggie Burrell: vocal (7).

Southwest Portals

Tracks: Away West; Echoes of the Grassland; Coronado's Dream; Days of August; Desert Flower; Summer Passage; Arcangel; Wind and Sand; Prairie Fugue.

Personnel: Bruce Lofgren: composer, arranger, guitar; Doug Livingston: pedal steel guitar; Mike Flick: acoustic bass; Jack LeCompte: drums, percussion.

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