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Joe Sullivan Big Band: Unfamiliar Surroundings

Jack Bowers By

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Unfamiliar Surroundings, a well-designed two-CD set by trumpeter Joe Sullivan's all-star ensemble from north of the border, consists of three disparate suites, two on Disc 1, the other on Disc 2. If the surroundings seem unfamiliar, the music is not, as it honors the legendary bellwethers of the Big Band Era without echoing any of them. Sullivan is a modern big band composer / arranger in the best sense of the phrase, writing music that is at ease in the twenty- first century as it carries on the time-honored jazz traditions of creative improvisation and emphatic swing. The presumption is that this is the sort of path that Ellington or Kenton may have followed had they lived to see this day.

Be advised at the outset, however, that digesting Sullivan's music requires a robust musical appetite; the listener should be ready to unwind on a cozy chair or couch to savor such elongated themes as the "Prelude" to October Suite (10:58) or "The Waiting Game," the opening movement from Suite Montage (17:34). While the various other movements are relatively more concise, none is briefer than "Refuge" (4:45), the fifth and final movement of Suite Montage. That suite, by the way, comprises the entirety of Disc 2, whereas Disc 1 is bisected by the October Suite and Suite Laurentides, each of which encompasses three movements.

Although the term "suite" is generally used to denote a series of reciprocal motifs, Sullivan's essays, even though conceived as interconnected parts, can easily stand alone as discrete compositions. In either case it is the music that is decisive, and Sullivan's themes are as a rule sharp and engaging. The October Suite's "Prelude" opens gently before shifting into a higher gear to accommodate emphatic solos by pianist Andre White and guitarist Lorne Lofsky. While the second movement isn't as "Off Kilter" as the name implies, tenor Al Mclean's frenzied solo lends credence to the sentiment before bassist Alec Walkington strides forward to calm things down. "Let's Go," which follows, is a fast-paced swinger with ample shouting by brass and reeds undergirding crisp solos by drummer Dave Lang and trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier.

That leads to the picturesque Suite Laurentides,whose components are "The Grackle" (a groovy foxtrot on which Sullivan [flugel] and Mclean solo); the shadowy "Nightfall" (White, piano; Jean Frechette, baritone sax), and "Unfamiliar Surroundings," another burner whose assertive solos are delivered by trumpeter Aron Doyle and tenor Andre Leroux. Unlike October or Laurentides, the Suite Montage has five movements: "The Waiting Game," "A Lullaby," "Montage #3," "The Captain's Log" and "Refuge." On the first, Frechette's bass clarinet and Lang's drums introduce the seductive minor-key theme, which precedes bold and effusive statements by Leroux, trumpeter Dave Mossing and alto Remi Bolduc. Donny Kennedy's open-hearted alto is showcased on the far from slumberous "Lullaby," Lofsky on the Latin-leaning "Montage #3," Mclean (soprano) on the undulating "Captain's Log." Sullivan returns to share blowing space with Lofsky on the bright and easygoing finale, "Refuge."

Thanks to Sullivan's admirable charts and his squadron of talented teammates, Unfamiliar Surroundings goes far beyond "suite" music to present a listening experience that entices the ear as it enlivens the heart.

Track Listing: Disc 1 -- October Suite (Prelude / Off Kilter / Let’s Go); Suite Laurentides (The Grackle / Nightfall / Unfamiliar Surroundings). Disc 2 -- Suite Montage ( The Waiting Game / A Lullaby / Montage #3 / The Captain’s Log / Refuge).

Personnel: Joe Sullivan: composer, arranger, conductor, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jocelyn Couture: trumpet, flugelhorn; Aron Doyle: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dave Mossing: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jocelyn Lapointe: trumpet, flugelhorn; Donny Kennedy: alto sax, flute; Remi Bolduc: alto sax; Al Mclean: tenor, soprano sax; Andre Leroux: tenor, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Jean Frechette: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Anh Phung: flute; Gabriel Gagnon: trombone; Richard Gagnon: trombone; Jean-Nicolas Trottier: trombone; Jean-Sebastian Vachon: bass trombone, tuba; Lorne Lofsky: guitar; Andre White: piano; Alec Walkington: bass; Dave Laing: drums.

Title: Unfamiliar Surroundings | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Perry Lake Records

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