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The Jim Olsen Ensemble: We See Stars

Jack Bowers By

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For We See Stars, Oregon-based composer / arranger Jim Olsen has pared his usual big band down to a more manageable tentet but hasn't lessened the ebullience and ingenuity that are invariably a part of Olsen's broad palette. The album, Olsen says, evolved from a casual post-concert conversation in which he asked trumpeter Bobby Shew and saxophonist Dick Oatts, longtime friends and colleagues who had performed and recorded together in the past, if they would consider teaming up to do it again. Instead of brushing aside his request, Shew and Oatts embraced the idea, and it wasn't long before Olsen had faced a piano, written some new music and assembled a band to play it, with the two superstars as its nucleus.

Among the characteristics of Olsen's music that stand out are rhythmic vitality and harmonic variety, the first of which propels the band inflexibly forward while the second provides an alluring sonic counterpoint. Shew and Oatts are wholly at ease within that shifting framework, as their tasteful solos clearly affirm. Oatts' alto is showcased with the splendid pianist John Harmon on the aptly named "Wistful," Shew's flugelhorn, again with Harmon, on the ethereal "We See Stars," which precedes the bright, well-grooved finale, "Running Amok," on which Shew and Oatts provide yet another sample of their improvisational artistry.

Earlier, there are effective solos by other members of the ensemble including alto / soprano saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi, tenor Lynn Baker, trumpeter Dana Heitman and trombonist Glenn Bonney, none of whom is found wanting. As for the rhythmic framework, it is in the capable hands of Harmon, bassist Andrea Niemiec and drummer Jason Palmer, with percussionist Mike Snyder joining in on "We See Stars" and "Dark Sun." Speaking of which, that theme is Olsen's shadowy take on Lionel Hampton's jazz standard, "Midnight Sun." Without going into specifics, every other tune is thematic as well. By name, they are "Scary Hair," "Illogical Conclusion," "Shard" and "What Needs to Be Said." Shew and Oatts solo on every one save "Dark Sun," while Olsen adds an alto flute solo on "Shard."

Even though Olsen didn't expect much from what was basically a casual chat with a couple of fellow musicians, wouldn't it be nice if other such conversations were to produce the same kind of results. The stars truly were aligned that day, and Olsen has made the most of his good fortune on We See Stars.

Track Listing: Scary Hair; Dark Sun; Illogical Conclusion; Shard; What Needs to Be Said; Wistful; We See Stars; Running Amok.

Personnel: Jim Olsen: composer, arranger, flutes; Bobby Shew: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dana Heitman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Oatts: alto, soprano sax; Hashem Assadullahi: alto, soprano sax; Lynn Baker: tenor, soprano sax; Glenn Bonney: trombone; John Harmon: piano, electric piano; Andrea Niemiec: basses; Jason Palmer: drums; Mike Snyder: congas, percussion.

Title: We See Stars | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: OA2 Records


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