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The Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra Gets "Thrasched"


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The thirty-third annual Albuquerque Jazz Festival ended its two-day run on February 21, 2009. The event is devoted mainly to performances by high school and middle school bands, while the grand finale features the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra with invited guests, this year the saxophone quartet Thrascher (Randy Hamm, soprano; Tim Ishii, alto; Edward Petersen, tenor; Glenn Kostur, baritone). The concert was held at the African American Performing Arts Center auditorium whose acoustics are among the best in the area.

Betty and I arrived ahead of time and took our customary back-row seats, ready to enjoy the evening. Backstage, I learned that music director Bobby Shew would not be there; another gig had called him out of town. The orchestra was supervised in his stead by trombonist John Sanks. The AJO was onstage first, performing a quartet of songs—"Little Gus," "My One and Only Love," "Just You, Just Me" and "Song for Bilbao." While nothing was amiss, we noticed that the band seemed uninspired, perhaps owing to Shew's absence. There were some respectable solos by Sanks and fellow trombonists Ed Ulman and newcomer Christian Pidcock (on valve trombone), saxophonists Lee Taylor and Aaron Lovato, pianist Chris Ishee and trumpeter Kent Erickson, but the over-all feeling was one of off-handedness, as though waiting for Thrascher to come onstage. That moment soon arrived, and here we must pause to accentuate the positive. Thrascher is comprised of top-drawer musicians who are both intuitive and resourceful, and their charts are on the whole sharp and pleasing.

Which leads us to the other side of the coin. Although Thrascher is admirable as a unit, its separate members were somewhere removed from that, especially when soloing. Perhaps it's not their failing, and perhaps they are playing the music they map out in their heads, but too often improvisations sounded overwrought and mannered in the extreme. Petersen is especially guilty of that transgression, constantly testing the limits of his horn (and our patience), but there were times when everyone lent his voice to the strident chorus. To further becloud matters, the second half of the concert was devoted exclusively to Thrascher with the AJO in a backup role. As we had expected more, the mood when the concert ended was one of displeasure rather than elation. Nevertheless, we'll be back next year...

On the Horizon . . .

If you've not done so already, don't miss your chance to register for the next Ken Poston / L.A. Jazz Institute spectacular, "A Swingin' Affair," set for May 21-24 at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel. As usual, the lineup is comprised of world-class big bands who will be performing in the hotel ballroom four four days and evenings. The sixteen working bands signed up so far include the Frank Capp Juggernaut, Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage, Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, the Carl Saunders Bebop Big Band, Emil Richards' Hollywood All-Stars, Med Flory's Jazzwave Big Band Featuring SuperSax, Ron Jones' Influence Jazz Orchestra, and ensembles led by Les Hooper, John Altman, Chris Walden, Bill Watrous, Alf Clausen and Tom Kubis. As icing on the cake, top college bands including the Santa Monica and UCLA Jazz Ensembles and the JazzAmerica Big Band will be on hand for noontime concerts at poolside. Special events include a presentation marking the sixtieth anniversary of the "Birth of the Cool," a "Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra" by the L.A. Jazz Orchestra, and a tribute to the great composer / arranger / pianist Bob Florence by his Limited Edition Big Band.

All of that is in addition, of course, to the usual films and panel discussions, which this time around will focus on big bands on film and television as well as on the Hollywood career of Frank Sinatra. For more information, go online to www.lajazzinstitute.org or phone 562-985-7065.

On June 5-15, the U.S. capital is host to the fifth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, billed as a Salute to New Orleans and honoring one of its favorite sons, pianist Ellis Marsalis, scion of the award-winning Marsalis brothers. Featured artists will include Terence Blanchard, Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band and Buckwheat Zydeco. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or phone 347-726-8325.

Speaking of Ellington...

According to the U.S. Mint, the Duke is to be the first African-American to appear on an American coin. His likeness will adorn the D.C. commemorative quarter which depicts Ellington seated at the piano. He won the honor by a vote of D.C. residents, beating out abolitionist Frederick Douglass and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. Also on the coin is the phrase "justice for all." During his long career as composer / pianist / bandleader, Ellington, who was born in D.C., earned thirteen Grammy Awards and composed more than three thousand songs.

And Yet Another Honor

Drummer Sherrie Maricle, the leader since its inception of the superb all-woman big band DIVA, is the 2009 recipient of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for her lifetime of service to jazz. Maricle will receive the honor on May 15 at the Kennedy Center in D.C. She's also scheduled in June as a guest on pianist Marian McPartland's popular radio program, Piano Jazz, on National Public Radio. DIVA's sixth recording, Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, is now available.

And Lest We Forget . . .

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's newest CD (actually a two-CD set), Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard, has won a Grammy Award as Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, while Song for Chico by Arturo O'Farrill and the Latin Jazz Orchestra won similar honors as Best Latin Jazz Album.

You Heard It Where?

On a recent visit to the Olive Garden restaurant in Albuquerque, my ears were drawn to the nearly inaudible speaker system, from which ushered forth songs by June Christy with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (can't recall the name of the tune), plus jazz versions of "All the Things You Are" (piano trio), "Taking a Chance on Love" (violinist, sounded like Stephane Grappelli), "I Won't Dance," "As Long as I Live" and "Almost Like Being in Love," plus Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." As always, I complimented the management on its choice of music, letting them know that at least one customer listened to and appreciated it. Next time you're at an Olive Garden, see what you can hear. You may be pleasantly surprised, as I was.

From the Department of Distressing News...

Two members of Chuck Mangione's band, saxophonist Gerry Niewood and guitarist Coleman Mellett, were among the fifty persons killed when Continental Airlines flight 3407 crashed into a home in suburban Buffalo, NY, on Thursday, February 12. Forty-nine of the victims were on the plane, one in the home that was struck. Niewood and Mellett were flying to Buffalo to perform the following evening with Mangione and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Mellett, 33, was a relative newcomer, while Niewood and Mangione's partnership and friendship dated to their high school days in Rochester, NY. Niewood first joined the band in 1968, stayed until 1976, and rejoined in the mid-1990s after a career as a freelance / studio musician and leader of his own groups.

Jazz in general and big bands in particular lost a staunch advocate February 9 when bandleader / guitarist / entrepreneur Vic Lewis died in London at age 89. Lewis was a firm supporter as well as a close friend of Stan Kenton, whose orchestra he conducted at Carnegie Hall in 1950. Lewis was also one of the West Coast jazz school's strongest allies. After recording Mulligan's Music Lewis and his band toured the U.S. in 1956-57, recorded Basie-inspired compositions by Nelson Riddle in 1962, and a bossa nova album the following year. That date featured an all-star lineup that included Shorty Rogers, Jack Sheldon, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Victor Feldman, Laurindo Almeida, Don Bagley and Shelly Manne. Over the next four decades, Lewis recorded dozens of big-band albums in London. His last album, recorded in 2000, was With Love to Gerry.

Also on February 9, the jazz world lost one of its most original artists, singer Blossom Dearie, who helped pioneer vocalese in the 1940s and early 1950s. She was 82. And on January 20 we bade farewell to saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, a longtime member of the Ray Charles Band who later had a successful career as a solo performer. Newman was 75.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!...

New and Noteworthy

1. Ed Vezinho / Jim Ward Big Band, With Friends Like These (Dream Box Music)
2. DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Live at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club (DIVA Jazz)
3. Bob Mintzer Big Band, Swing Out (MCG Jazz)
4. SWR Big Band / Toshiko Akiyoshi, Let Freedom Swing (Hanssler)
5. Doug Hamilton Jazz Band, Untitled (OA2 Records)
6. Stan Kenton, Road Band '67 (Tantara Productions)
7. Phil Norman Tentet, Totally Live at Catalina Jazz Club (MAMA)
8. Kluvers Big Band, Hot House (KBB)
9. Anthony Brown Asian-American Orchestra, Ten (Water Baby Records)
10. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Buleria, Solea y Rumba (Sea Breeze Vista)
11. Doncaster Jazz Orchestra, And Friends (DYJA)
12. DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, That Being Said (Jazzed Media)
13. Fat Cat Big Band, Angels Praying for Freedom (Smalls)
14. Pasadena City College Ensembles, Thanks for the Memories (PCC Jazz)
15. Sounds of Swing, Swinging on a Clear Day (No label)

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