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Vezinho - Ward Big Band / Phil Norman Tentet / Kluvers Big Band / Doug Hamilton Jazz Band


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Ed Vezinho - Jim Ward Big Band
With Friends Like These...
Dream Box Media

It's hard to believe that almost nine years have passed since I was blown away by the Ed Vezinho-Jim Ward Big Band's debut album, Smile. After hearing the first five numbers on that CD I was so excited that I called my brother Tom in Florida. "You've gotta hear this incredible trumpet section!" I said, and played parts of the album for him over the phone. Now, as we enter the year 2009, the band has released its third recording, With Friends Like These..., and lo and behold, almost nothing has changed. Yes, the charts are new (all arranged, as usual, by co-captain/lead alto Vezinho) but the ensemble is as sharp and sturdy as ever, the soloists as engaging as one could wish for on any big-band album.

The program, as on the previous studio dates, is a charming amalgam of standards and originals (half a dozen each) including four tasteful compositions by Vezinho—the playfully named and fast-paced "Hat Out of Bell," buoyant and brassy "Trumpetland," forceful and funky "Runnin' Away from You" and rock-inflected title selection. Among the "standards" are a couple of unforeseen yet no less pleasurable surprises—a contemporary look at J.S. Bach's lyrical ode to "Joy" and a snappy waltz-time version of Martin Charnin/Charles Strouse's "Maybe," most memorably sung by pre-teen Andrea McArdle in the smash Broadway musical Annie (and featuring an unannounced guest, tenor saxophonist Skip Spratt).

Spratt is one of a number of splendid artists whose names aren't to be found among the personnel (or in Bob Perkins' otherwise adequate liner notes) including soprano saxophonist Ron Kerber (showcased on his own composition, "Jofa"), baritone Denis DiBlasio and flugel George Rabbai ("Secret Love"), tenor Michael Pedicin and flugel Al Harrison ("All the Way"), tenor Larry McKenna ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"), flautist Robert Rawlins ("Joy"), trumpeter Pete Colangelo ("Trumpetland") and guitarist Brian Betz ("Runnin' Away"). Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" is a tour de force for the band's marvelous baritone saxophonist, Stan Weiss.

There is one other minor change in that Ward shares lead trumpet duties not only with Joe Scannella ("Trumpetland," "I'll Be Around," "With Friends," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"), as before, but with Dennis Wasko ("All the Way") and Dave Kennedy ("Jofa"). Even without its (undesignated) guest artists, this is one well-tailored, persistently swinging big band. With them on board (and playing marvelously), With Friends Like These... rises to a level akin to awe-inspiring. To phrase it another way, the V-WBB's third album is by any measure as admirable and rewarding as its predecessors, and no further endorsement is necessary.

The Phil Norman Tentet
"Totally" Live at Catalina Jazz Club
MAMA Records

"Totally" Live at Catalina Jazz Club, the fourth album by Phil Norman's consistently admirable and invigorating Southern California-based Tentet (actually a ten-member group plus Norman's tenor sax) is the second recorded in concert, an inspired two-CD set lovingly dedicated to the memory of one of its fallen leaders, the renowned composer/arranger/pianist Bob Florence who passed away in May 2008. While Christian Jacob sits in at the keyboard, Florence's presence enhances the session via two of his singular compositions ("Frothy," "A Joyful Noise") and a pair of well-crafted arrangements (Miles Davis' "All Blues," Bill Holman's "Theme and Variations").

Besides having enlisted Florence, who served as a linchpin of the ensemble from its inception, Norman has had the luxury of trolling for talent in the vast pool of superlative musicians in the Los Angeles area, a number of whom either lead groups of their own or play prominent roles in others or as first-call studio musicians. As a result, he can rest assured that come what may, these gentlemen will always deliver a topnotch performance, as indeed they do here on every number, from Med Flory's groove-drenched opener, "I'm Dig" (featuring trumpeter Ron Stout) through the ingenious ensemble piece "Theme and Variations."

Trombonist Andy Martin is showcased on Willie Maiden's enchanting "Hymn to Her," Jacob and guitarist Larry Koonse on the aptly named "Joyful Noise." The tentet's "other" trumpeter, Carl Saunders, solos brilliantly, as always, on "The Outlaw and Middle Jazz," "Frothy" and Kim Richmond's freshly woven arrangement of Bob Nolan's western classic, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which opens Disc 2. Others who shine in the solo spotlight include alto saxophonist Rusty Higgins, bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Dave Tull. Roger Neumann is the second tenor (doubling on baritone), while percussionist Brad Dutz rounds out the band's starting lineup. Richmond also arranged "The Outlaw," Neumann "Hymn to Her" and Sir Charles Thompson's "Robbins' Nest" (to which he adds a spunky baritone solo), while trombonist Scott Whitfield ably scored Dizzy Gillespie's irrepressible "Night in Tunisia."

Even on the slower numbers ("Hymn to Her," Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments," "Nature Boy") the ensemble can't resist the urge to swing, as it does with abandon throughout this thoroughly agreeable concert. The enthusiastic audience at Catalina in Hollywood definitely got its money's worth and more. In sum, "Totally" Live is totally awesome. It's hard to envision a session that could have placed and kept a broader or more appreciative smile on Bob Florence's face.

Kluvers Big Band
Hot House
KBB Jazz

Hot House is at least the fifth recording I've heard by the superb Denmark-based Kluvers Big Band, each of which has had one or more notable guest artists sitting in. The current album, taped at a concert in Aarhus, is subtitled "Thilo Meets Mackrel," denoting the awesome presence of the acclaimed Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo and dynamic American drummer Dennis Mackrel who also wrote the clean, ear-catching arrangements of four well-known standards, a trio of Duke Ellington perennials, Tadd Dameron's bop classic, "Hot House," and Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be."

The indefatigable Thilo solos brightly on every number save one, and that one is Mackrel's drums-only introduction to the Lester Young classic, "Lester Leaps In." Thilo's a smooth, articulate swinger from the Scott Hamilton/Harry Allen neo-swing school who scrupulously places every note and accent precisely where it belongs without ever missing a beat or forswearing his awareness or intensity. He has the concert stage to himself on Mitchell Parish's "Sweet Lorraine," Duke's "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

Conductor Jens Kluver's close-knit ensemble boasts a number of admirable soloists of its own, notably trumpeter Lars Vissing, alto Niels Lhyne Lokkegaard, tenor Claus Waidtlow, trombonist Nikolai Bergelund Pedersen, guitarist Soren Bo Addemos and pianist Mads Baerentzen, each of whom is given one or more chances to validate that impression. Mackrel, meanwhile, confines himself for the most part to anchoring the band's agile rhythm section but does allow his formidable chops free rein on the intro to "Lester."

Even though not always as "hot" as its name suggests ("Can't Be Love," "Lester," "One of Those Things" excepted), this well-designed and amicable concert date is sure to please anyone who admires a world-class ensemble that cooks in any and all tempos and moods, especially when it embodies as a fringe benefit the remarkable talents of Jesper Thilo and Dennis Mackrel who by themselves are more than worth the price of admission.

Doug Hamilton Jazz Band
OA2 Records

Everyone in Doug Hamilton's Jazz Band (actually a tentet) is a member of either the Army Blues, Navy Commodores or Airmen of Note, and that's an unequivocal measure of excellence. The leader, a trombonist himself as well as an impressive composer/arranger, is the founder of Canada's Brass Connection, a Juno award-winning ensemble that featured five trombones and rhythm. Hamilton wrote three of the selections on his buoyant debut album for OA2 Records and arranged all save three. Another Canadian, Rick Wilkins, scored Bill Evans' "Very Early," while co-producer (and chief arranger for the Army Blues) Mark Taylor redesigned Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day."

As an arranger, Hamilton is an admirer of the peerless Bill Holman's contrapuntal style, which is clear from the outset and almost everywhere in between. Aside from Hamilton's enticing originals ("Modal Blues," "Paula," "Samba"), trombonist Ian McDougall's seductive "Styptic Pencil" (based on "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You") and those already mentioned, the songs on offer should be familiar to most listeners, opening with "By Myself" from The Bandwagon and including Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," Porter's "I Love You," the ballad "That's All" (featuring Bill Linney's alto), Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," Sammy Cahn's "Day by Day" and the traditional folk song "Scarborough Fair." The soloists, as one would presume, are first-class, while lead trumpeter Liesl Whitaker ably roams the stratosphere and pianist Tony Nalker, bassist Paul Henry and drummer Steve Fidyk (all from the Blues) lay down a solid foundation that precludes any missteps. Fidyk is replaced on some numbers (the liner notes don't indicate which ones) by the AON's Doug McDonald. Baritone saxophonist Scott Silbert (Commodores) and tenor Tedd Baker (Airmen) are the other non-Army Blues in the starting lineup.

Baker solos superbly throughout, as do Linney, Nalker, Roberts, Silbert, Fidyk, trumpeter Craig Fraedrich and trombonist Matt Niess, and it would be unsporting to single anyone out for special praise. On the other hand, one must acknowledge the elegant arrangements by Hamilton, Taylor and Wilkins, as they supply the fuel that sparks the enterprise and drives it resolutely onward and upward. Every piece is structured with the ensemble in mind, lending it an expansive, full-bodied sound that belies its relatively modest size. There's not a remnant in the batch. The musicianship, as noted, is beyond reproach, and there is in fact nothing on the album to bar one's enthusiastic endorsement.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Jazz Ensemble 1
Beyond the Plains
Self Published

Beyond the Plains, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Jazz Ensemble director Paul Haar writes, chronicles "the growth and development of the finest group of young musicians that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching." This is the ensemble's second recording in Haar's four years at the school and like the first one, Minimal Effort, makes listening a genuine pleasure from start to finish.

About the title, Haar writes that "most envision Nebraska to be all about football and farming....The reality is that Nebraska has long been a "hotbed" of contemporary thinking and artistic innovation. So Beyond the Plains is more about dispelling the myths others have than a validation of our own beliefs." Although Nebraska may not yet be a hotbed of contemporary big-band jazz, there's no doubting that Haar has sculpted a trim, perceptive and powerful ensemble that can easily stand its ground against almost any other undergraduate-level group in the plains or beyond. To test its mettle, Haar has chosen two enduring standards ("Whispering," "It Could Happen to You") and eight absorbing originals, three by members of the ensemble (pianist David Von Kampen's rhapsodic "Elimination," lead trumpeter Jeff Richmond's buoyant, Latin-tinged "Joy Dance" and trumpeter Paul Krueger's colorful "Get Up!"), the last two performed by the seven-member UNL Jazz Combo.

The large ensemble opens with Victor Lewis' boppish showpiece, "Hey, It's Me You're Talkin' To" (trim solos by trumpeter Micha Pischnotte, guitarist Luke Polipnick, tenor Chris Steinke) and closes with Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays' roaring, fugue-like "First Circle" (featuring Polipnick and percussionist Greg Coffey). Rounding out the persuasive program are Vince Mendoza's splashy "Rain Codes" (pensive intro by pianist Von Kampen) and a pair of charmers by Donald Brown, "The Thing About George Coleman" and chorale-based shuffle "Daddy's Girl Cynthia," the first featuring Polipnick and trombonist Tommy Van den Berg, the second, Steinke and Von Kampen. Other first-rate soloists are flugelhornists Krueger and Mathew Boring, altos Brandon Holloman and Gabriela Praetzel, bassist Sean Murphy and drummer Wes Graffius.

As noted, the album is a pleasure to hear from start to finish and at every point in between. In only four years, Haar has transported the UNL Jazz Ensemble 1 not only Beyond the Plains but far above the ordinary.

Anthony Brown's Asian-American Orchestra
Water Baby Records

Anthony Brown deserves a hearty round of applause for gathering musicians of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds to form the Asian-American American Orchestra, a second for keeping the large and diverse ensemble together for more than a decade, and a third for his exemplary leadership, which has helped empower the San Francisco-based ensemble to sound as commendable as it does on The CD marks the AAO's tenth anniversary by presenting selections from its previous albums and three vignettes from Brown's original score for ACT/Philip Gotanda's theatrical production After the War.

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy sits in and solos superbly on two numbers, Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" and "Hackensack," while another guest, bass clarinetist David Murray, is a low-register whiz on Ellington's "Come Sunday." The sketches from After the War ("Act II," "Interlude," "Prelude d'Amour") are fleeting, with "d'Amour" the longest at 1:52. Besides "Come Sunday," Ellington is represented in the largely sedate and mellow program by "Mt. Harissa" (and its prelude), Billy Strayhorn by the ruminative "Isfahan," Thelonious by "Monk's Mood" (played as a duet by Hong Wang on Chinese viola and Yangqin Zhao on Chinese hammered dulcimer). The orchestra completes the agenda with Charles Mingus' unhurried "Self Portrait in Three Colors," the familiar adagio to George Gershwin's trendsetting "Rhapsody in Blue" and Brown's "Intro to Rhymes" and "Rhymes for Children."

The AAO's soloists are for the most part sharp and engaging, with Wang's Chinese violin especially rewarding on "Come Sunday." Guitarist Will Bernard is impressive on "Rhapsody in Blue," alto saxophonist Malicio Magdaluyo likewise on "Isfahan" and "Monk's Mood." Others heard to good advantage include trumpeters Henry Hung and John Worley, tenor Hafez Modirzadeh and trombonist Wayne Wallace. Tenor Francis Wong and reed trumpeter Qi Chao Liu, on the other hand, venture way over the top and beyond on the Latin-based "Rhymes" (taking Worley and Wallace with them).

Brown, son of an African-American father and Japanese mother, says the AAO was originally funded by Congress "to compensate for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II" and the supposition that it was money well spent is undeniable. The band's first recording, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, was released in 1998, and since then Brown has worked with an evolving group of musicians who share his inclusive vision including Wang, Zhao, Wallace, Magdaluyo, Hung, bassist Mark Izu, trombonist Dave Martell, trumpeter Geechi Taylor and saxophonists Marcia Miget and Masaru Koga. Their harmony and camaraderie are conspicuously evident on Ten, a splendid salute to the AAO's first decade of musical enterprise.

Kutztown University Jazz Ensemble 1
The Best Is Yet to Come
Sea Breeze Vista

Ten of the thirteen selections on The Best Is Yet to Come, the Kutztown (PA) University Jazz Ensemble's spunky tribute to Frank Sinatra and the crowd-pleasing Rat Pack, are vocals by Jim Cargill (six) or Kristin Grassi (four). Most of them were runaway best-sellers for the Chairman of the Board himself, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin or, in two cases ("Orange Colored Sky," "Straighten Up and Fly Right"), Nat King Cole.

While Cargill sings with panache and personality, one can't help comparing his versions of these hugely popular tunes with the originals. Best not to do that, as there was only one Sinatra (ditto for Davis and Martin); instead, listen to Cargill as he does his best to refurbish these oft-heard gems and give him a round of applause and a warm pat on the back for his courage in making the effort. Grassi's task is relatively simple, as none of the Rat Pack was female, so her renditions are less analogous to the prototypes. She sings respectably on "The Best Is Yet to Come," "The Summer Wind" and the Cole hits "Orange Colored Sky" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right," even though the last seems a strange choice for someone who can't correctly pronounce the word "straighten" (she consistently glides past the second "t" to make it "straigh-en"). Aside from that minor lapse, Grassi, who earned DownBeat magazine's award as Best College Vocalist in 2007, sings well enough. Her mid-range voice is clear and pleasing, and she hits most notes in the middle.

As for the ensemble, it performs capably in supporting Cargill and Grassi, and is decent albeit generic on its three Basie-inspired numbers—"Moten Swing," Freddie Green's "Corner Pocket" and Frank Foster's "Fos Alarm," the last featuring baritone saxophonist Steve Kenney. In the end, the album's potency and charm rest on the shoulders of Cargill and Grassi, and one's enjoyment must depend largely on how he or she warms to their updated readings of songs whose quintessential Rat Pack versions can always be imitated but never duplicated.

Tracks and Personnel

With Friends Like These

Tracks: Hat Out of Bell; Jofa; All the Way; Joy; Trumpetland; Sophisticated Lady; Secret Love; I'll Be Around; With Friends Like These; I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face; Maybe; Runnin' Away from You (the Saga of Cybil and Ray).

Personnel: Ed Vezinho: co-leader, arranger, alto sax, flute, clarinet; Jim Ward: co-leader, trumpet; Joe Scannella, Dennis Wasko, Dave Kennedy, Mike Natale: trumpet; Howard Isaacson: alto sax, flute, clarinet; John Guida, Joe Rotella: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Stan Weiss: baritone sax; Joe Ziegenfus, Clint Sharman, Rich Goldstein, Joe Jacobs: trombone; Demetrious Pappas: piano; Andy Lalasis: bass; Harry Himles: drums.

'Totally' Live at Catalina Jazz Club

Tracks: Disc 1—Introduction (Helen Borgers); I'm Dig; All Blues; The Outlaw and Middle Jazz; Hymn to Her; Frothy; Stolen Moments. Disc 2—Tumbling Tumbleweeds; A Night in Tunisia; Nature Boy; Robbins' Nest; A Joyful Noise; Theme and Variations.

Personnel: Phil Norman: leader, tenor sax; Carl Saunders, Ron Stout: trumpet; Rusty Higgins: alto, soprano sax, flute; Roger Neumann: baritone sax; Andy Martin: trombone; Larry Koonse: guitar; Christian Jacob: piano; Kevin Axt: bass; David Tull: drums; Brad Dutz: percussion.

Hot House

Tracks: This Can't Be Love; In a Mellow Tone; Sweet Lorraine; Hot House; Things Ain't What They Used to Be; Bye Bye Blackbird; In a Sentimental Mood; Just One of Those Things; Lester Leaps In; Don't Get Around Much Anymore.

Personnel: Kluvers Big Band with Dennis Mackrel: drums, arranger; Jesper Thilo: tenor saxophone.

Doug Hamilton Jazz Band

Tracks: By Myself; Up Jumped Spring; Modal Blues; I Love You; Paula; Oleo; That's All; Very Early; Scarborough Fair; Styptic Pencil; My Funny Valentine; Day by Day; Samba.

Personnel: Liesl Whitaker, Craig Fraedrich: trumpet; Bill Linney: alto sax; Tedd Baker: tenor sax; Scott Silbert: baritone sax; Matt Niess: trombone; Jim Roberts: guitar; Tony Nalker: piano; Paul Henry: bass; Steve Fidyk, Dave McDonald: drums.

Beyond the Plains

Tracks: Hey It's Me You're Talkin' To; Whispering; Elimination; It Could Happen to You; The Thing About George Coleman; Daddy's Girl Cynthia; Joy Dance; Get Up!; Rain Codes; First Circle.

Personnel: Jazz Ensemble 1—Paul Haar: director; Jeff Richmond, Mathew Boring, Paul Krueger, Micha Pischnone: trumpet; Brandon Holloman, Gabriela Praetzel: alto sax; Chris Steinke, Elizabeth Love (3, 4, 10): tenor sax; Christopher Barrick (3, 4, 10): tenor, baritone sax; Drake Sobehrad: baritone sax; Craig Mathis, Tommy Van den Berg, Matt Juhl, Andrew Binkard (3, 4, 10), Devin McCauley (3, 4, 10): trombone; Ben Fry, Alex Rock (3, 4, 10): bass trombone; David Von Kampen: keyboards; Luke Polipnick: guitar; Sean Murphy: bass; Greg Coffey: drums, percussion (10); Wes Graffius (3, 4, 10): drums. Jazz Combo 1—Dr. Darryl White: director; Paul Krueger: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brandon Holloman: tenor sax; Tommy Van den Berg: trombone; David Von Kampen: piano; Devin McCauley: guitar; Sean Murphy: bass; Greg Coffee: drums.


Tracks: After the War (Act II); Self Portrait in Three Colors; Adantino / Adagio (Rhapsody in Blue); Come Sunday; Anthem / Baile de la Orisha; After the War (Interlude); Monk's Mood; Misterioso; Hackensack; After the War (Prelude l'Amour); Isfahan; Mount Harissa (Prelude); Mount Harissa; Intro to Rhymes; Rhymes for Children.

Personnel: Anthony Brown: leader, drum set, percussion; Louis Fasman (2-5, 7-9, 11-13), Henry Hung (1, 2-5, 10), John Worley (7-9, 11-15): trumpet, flugelhorn; Danny Bittker (2-5): steel pans, reeds; Melecio Magdaluyo, Masaru Koga (2-5), Jim Norton (2-5, 7-9, 11-13), Marcia Miget (1-5, 10), Hafez Moderate (7-9, 11-15), Francis Wong (7-9, 11-15): reeds; Wayne Wallace: trombone; Dave Martell (2-5, 7-9, 11-13): trombone, tuba; Georgia Brown (3): percussion; Will Bernard (2, 3): guitar; Mark Izu: bass, Chinese mouth organ; Jon Jang (11, 13-15): piano; Qi Chan Liu (12-15): Chinese flute, mouth organ, reed trumpet; Hong Wang (3-5, 7-9): Chinese viola, flute, mouth organ; Yangqin Zhao (2-5, 7-9): Chinese hammered dulcimer. Special guests—Steve Lacy (8, 9): soprano sax; Frank Martin (1, 4-6, 10): piano; David Murray (4): bass clarinet; San Jose Taiko (15): percussion.

The Best Is Yet to Come

Tracks: Moten Swing; Come Fly with Me; The Best Is Yet to Come; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; Orange Colored Sky; Ain't That a Kick in the Head; Corner Pocket; That Old Black Magic; The Summer Wind; Please Be Kind; Straighten Up and Fly Right; The Way You Look Tonight; Fos Alarm.

Personnel: John Stoudt, Rachel Sustak, Amanda Cortezzo, Kyle Fleetman, John Scanlon: trumpet; Marybeth Kern: alto sax, clarinet, flute; Rich Sullivan: alto sax, flute; Michael Pagnotta, Joe Scheller: tenor sax; Steve Kenney: baritone sax; Ben Ashton, John Emery, Bob Yelk: trombone; Dan Magan: bass trombone; Mike Scales: piano; Dan Harakel: guitar; Paul Tomson: bass; Kyle Page: drums; Kristin Grassi, Jim Cargill: vocals.

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