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Spectacular. There’s no other way to describe “Seesaw,” the opening number on the second album by Bob Brookmeyer’s German–based New Art Orchestra. A shame the Grammy Awards don’t include one for best big–band composition (even though there is a ludicrous prize for “best Jazz solo”), as “Seesaw” would win the honor going away. The highest compliment this reviewer can pay Brookmeyer’s “dialogue between drums and band” is that it brought to mind some favorite themes (“Playground,” “Big Swing Face,” “555 Feet High”) by the great (and greatly underrated) Bill Potts. As for the NAO’s John Hollenbeck, we’ve seldom heard drumming that impressive since the heyday of Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Stan Levey and Jerry McKenzie (with the possible exceptions of Louie Bellson, Terry Clarke and Frankie Capp, who are still going strong). “Seesaw” is simply awesome, and if the rest of the album isn’t quite as remarkable, it’s at least strong enough to earn a “don’t pass this one up” label. There’s an abundance of light but not much heat beyond “Seesaw” as Brookmeyer damps the fire to showcase the ensemble’s mellower side. “Child at Play,” which does have some frisky moments (and a nice clarinet solo by Oliver Leicht), was written for Brookmeyer’s godchild, the winsome ballad “For Maria” for fellow composer and former student Maria Schneider, the airy “Waltzing with Zoe” (with Hollenbeck on brushes) for trombonist Hal Crook’s ten–year–old daughter, the gentle “Sweetie” for the composer’s wife. The music, he writes, “arrived as ‘character pieces’ with a will of their own and I sometimes felt like a transcriber, following orders.” He followed them well. “K.P. ’94” is a new (and wholly unrecognizable) version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” while the flickering “Fireflies,” written three years ago for Germany’s WDR Big Band, is a showcase for trumpeter Eric Vloiemans. The album closes on a somber note with the darkly colored “American Tragedy,” which Brookmeyer says describes his feelings “about the country in which I dwell.” While there are a handful of solos (including four by Brookmeyer, on “Seesaw,” “For Maria,” “Sweetie” and “American Tragedy”), the focus throughout is on the ensemble as a close–knit unit, and the NAO performs Brookmeyer’s sophisticated charts with uncommon awareness and empathy. As Brookmeyer notes, “We have become an orchestra now, touring and recording, planning ahead and growing secure in our feelings for one another.” In other words, he and the New Art Orchestra are comfortable together, and their natural composure and reciprocal admiration lend Waltzing with Zoe much of its luster and charm and help raise it well above the ordinary.
Contact: Challenge Record Services, P. O. Box 540, 6800 AM Arnhem, The Netherlands (www.challenge.nl).
Track Listing: Seesaw; Child at Play; For Maria; Waltzing with Zoe; Fireflies; K.P.
Personnel: Bob Brookmeyer, composer, conductor, valve trombone; Marko Lackner, Oliver Leicht, alto, soprano sax, clarinet, flute; Matthias Erlewein, tenor sax, clarinet; Nils van Hatten, tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Edgar Herzog, baritone sax, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Thorsten Berkenstein, Torsten Maass, Sebastian Strempel, Eric Vloeimans, Angelo Verploegen, trumpet, flugelhorn; Adrian Mears, Jan Oosting, Bert Pfeiffer, trombone; Ed Partyka, bass trombone; Kris Goessens, piano; Achim Kaufmann, synthesizers; Ingmar Heller, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums.