I first heard DIVA more than ten years ago, and it was love at first note. It was called "no man's band" then, as if there were something to prove, but that's no longer necessary. DIVA has shown time and again that it can stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with any band anywhere. My admiration has grown deeper as the band has continued its upward course, producing a series of highly impressive albums, the most recent of which is this marvelous tribute to composer/arranger/saxophonist Tommy Newsom, late of the Tonight Show band and a steadfast DIVA supporter since its inception.
All of the arrangements and two of the compositions on T.N.T. are Newsom's, and those who remember him only as Johnny Carson's colorless foil on the Tonight Show may have to revise their opinion upward. Every one of these charts is superb, and as for Newsom's originals, "Titter Pipes" reminds me of something Zoot Sims or Al Cohn might have written and played, which is the highest compliment I can bestow, while "Three Shades of Blue" lays down a classic groove for Karolina Strassmayer's soprano sax and Chihiro Yamanaka's piano.
Strassmayer solos brilliantly on "Three Shades," as she does on alto ("Titter Pipes") and flute (Clare Fischer's rhythmic "Pensativa"). But she's not the only electrifying wire in the socket. Yamanaka is luminous on "Pensativa," as are tenor Scheila Gonzalez on "Titter Pipes" and "I Remember You," clarinetist Anat Cohen on "Moonlight" (a.k.a. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"), flugel Barbara Laronga on the seductive and too-seldom-heard ballad "Too Late Now," baritone Lisa Parrott and trumpeter Jami Dauber on the flavorful "Trail Mix" (Ferde Grofé's "On the Trail," Richard Rodgers' "Surry with the Fringe on Top") and Ellington's "Come Sunday," Cohen (tenor) and Laronga (trumpet) on a tune that Zoot Sims did write, the robustly swinging "Red Door." Gonzalez, Dauber and Laronga comprise a charming vocal group on "Straighten Up and Fly Right," part of a Nat Cole medley that includes "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy" and Bobby Troup's "Route 66," the last featuring snappy solos by trombonist Debra Weisz, alto Leigh Pilzer and trumpeter Tanya Darby.
Darby shares lead trumpet duties with the amazing Liesl Whitaker, while leader/drummer Sherrie Maricle kicks the band into high gear and keeps it there, a task she performs so well that one's awareness of her formidable presence is more subliminal than conscious, which is exactly the way great drumming should be. I could go on and on about DIVA, but I'll step aside and let the late Johnny Carson have the last word. "If I was still hosting the Tonight Show," he writes in the liner notes, "and Doc [Severinsen], Tommy and the guys weren't available I would hire this band in a heartbeat. As you can hear in these Tommy Newsom arrangements, Sherrie Maricle and these ladies really swing. They're simply terrific and could hold their own with the best of the big bands."