In Juke Box Saturday Night,
his book that embodies “memories of the Big Band Era and beyond,” author Richard Grudens includes chapters on bandleaders Artie Shaw, Les Brown, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Red Norvo, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James — and Ben Grisafi. Ben who?
That’s Ben G–r–i–s–a–f–i, who, at an age when most men have swapped their neckties and briefcases for pipe and slippers, leads a talented and reasonably successful big band in Long Island, New York. While not as well known as the gentlemen named above (an understatement if ever there was one), Grisafi has pursued a dream that began during his teen years, continued during stints on tenor sax with ensembles led by Billy Butterfield, Randy Brooks and Cab Calloway but was put on hold while he made a living as a jeweler and raised a family. Even then he kept playing on weekends, and in 1993, at the urging of record producer Bob Rosen, Grisafi organized a 40th anniversary reunion of the Army band in which he had played during the Korean conflict, and shortly afterward formed the Ben Grisafi Big Band, which has since recorded four albums (including one backing singer Roberto Tirado) with a fifth, Say You’ll Always Remember,
to be released in November. Talk of the Town
and But Beautiful
were recorded more than half a dozen years ago, Swing, Sweet and Sentimental
earlier this year. All of them feature vocalist Denise Richards, who sang with Miller and the Dorsey brothers, and the first two showcase sidemen who played with those bands and many others including Kenton, James, Shaw, Ray McKinley, Buddy Rich, Les and Larry Elgart, Louis Prima, Xavier Cugat, Charlie Barnet, Guy Lombardo, Ralph Flanagan, Johnny Long, Boyd Raeburn, Tex Beneke, Tito Puente and Georgie Auld. Swing, Sweet and Sentimental
introduces a new version of the ensemble with younger (but no less capable) personnel and no holdovers from those earlier albums. Grisafi, a self–taught arranger, writes all of the charts, and they swing in the finest big–band / dance–band tradition (for comparison’s sake, think Brown, Flanagan, Ray Anthony or the Elgarts). Grisafi also takes a number of the tenor solos, eliciting a warm, full–bodied sound that lends itself perfectly to such ballads as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Body and Soul,” “Come Back to Sorrento,” “But Beautiful” and “Stardust.” Featured soloists on Talk of the Town
include trumpeter Chuck Genduso (“Over the Rainbow,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”), trombonist Dan Repole (“Don’t Take Your Love from Me”) and lead alto Rudy Tanza (“Here’s That Rainy Day”); on But Beautiful,
Repole (“Laura”), high–flying trumpeter Neal Rosen (“It’s You or No One”), drummer Al Miller (“Al’s Got Rhythm”) and alto Chacey Dean (“Chacing the Dean”). Town
includes a spirited rendition of “Dixie,” dedicated to Grisafi’s Army unit, the Dixie Division, and closes with his affectionate salute to the ’40s, ”Big Band Blues.” Richards, a splendid band singer with a charming come–hither style, has three vocals on Talk of the Town,
four on But Beautiful,
five on Swing, Sweet & Sentimental.
She's fine on all of them but strongest on the ballads ("Speak Low," "More Than You Know," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "The More I See You," "Moonlight in Vermont," "That's All"). It's interesting to note that the brand new ensemble introduced by Grisafi on Swing, Sweet & Sentimental
is every bit as tight and swinging as its well-upholstered predecessor. Featured soloists, besides Grisafi, are Gary Meyer (clarinet on "I Thought About You," alto on "Skylark"), trumpeter Carl Fischer ("All of Me"), tenor Jeff Gordon ("Secret Love," "Gone with the Wind") and alto Julius Tollentino (Grisafi's "Aruban Fantasy"). "Fantasy" is one of several bright originals by the leader sprinkled through the three albums; aside from them the band seldom strays from familiar territory, but that's not a bad idea when the composers are named Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, Arlen, Carmichael, Van Heusen, McHugh, Warren, DePaul and Duke (among others). On Swing,
the orchestra does take a crack at Miles Davis' Jazz standard, "Four," before closing with Grisafi's Basie-like "Big Band Broadcast Blues." That album, by the way, is the only one of the three with a playing time of less
than seventy minutes (69:13). In sum, three consistently pleasurable albums by a classy ensemble that does whatever is needed to help keep the big-band spirit alive and well - none too shabby for a band that often has to rehearse new charts in the Grisafis' living room.
Contact:Ben Grisafi Orchestra, 3478 Daniel Crescent, Baldwin, NY 11510–5152. Phone 516–623–4725, e–mail Swingsax@ix.netcom.com