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Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Up from the Skies

Jack Bowers By

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On its fifth album since the passing of co-founder Mel Lewis in 1990, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra turns for a second time to the music of Jim McNeely, the ensemble's pianist/composer in residence and one of the country's outstanding contemporary composer/arrangers. Even though his music has lost none of its resourcefulness or depth, this is a kinder, gentler, more lyrical and even-tempered McNeely than we've heard before, and the enterprise is all the better for it.

The title selection, which opens the album, is a breezy Jimi Hendrix tune so smoothly arranged by McNeely that one could swear he or she were listening to Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. There are more twists and turns in drummer John Riley's showpiece, "The Life of Riley, but the music remains quite accessible, and Riley moves seamlessly from brushes to sticks to wrest every shard of energy and emotion from McNeely's dancing chart. McNeely wrote the enchanting ballad "In This Moment, he says, "to capture on paper what came out of [his] hands in the moment of composition. What came out is simply gorgeous, as are the solos by McNeely and flugel Scott Wendholt.

I don't know if it was planned that way, but it's nonetheless interesting that "Don't Even Ask!, written more than a dozen years ago when McNeely was a member of the Phil Woods Quintet, should precede the three-movement suite, One Question, Three Answers. "Ask! is an up-tempo romp featuring alto saxophonist Billy Drewes, with sharp supporting statements by McNeely and bassist Dennis Irwin. The suite runs for more than 25 minutes, and each of its movements headlines two soloists—trombonist John Mosca and baritone Gary Smulyan ("Almost Always ), trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto Dick Oatts ("Hardly Ever ), tenors Rich Perry and Ralph LaLama ("You Tell Me ). "The listener, McNeely writes, "is invited to formulate an appropriate question.

The closing number, "We Will Not Be Silenced, is a gossamer serenade that began life as a hymn and later became the third section of McNeely's September Tryptych, commissioned by the University of Connecticut Studio Orchestra. Perry and Smulyan share the solo honors.

One of the more agreeable aspects of reviewing an album by the VJO is that one needn't appraise the orchestra itself—excellence there is a given—and can concentrate on the music, which in this case is invariably warm and delightful. In the past I've not always been moved by McNeely's sometimes pedantic compositional style, but everything here is lucid and beyond reproach. To state the case more plainly, McNeely and the VJO have struck a musical vein akin to gold, and Up from the Skies is worth its weight in that precious mineral.


Track Listing: Up from the Skies; The Life of Riley; In This Moment; Don

Personnel: Jim McNeely: conductor, composer, arranger, piano; Nick Marchione, Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Scott Wendholt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes: alto, soprano saxophone, flute; Rich Perry: tenor saxophone, flute; Ralph LaLama: tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; John Mosca, Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson: trombone; Douglas Purviance: bass trombone; Dennis Irwin: bass; John Riley: drums.

Title: Up from the Skies | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Planet Arts Records


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