The Phil Norman Tentet opens its fourth album, Wide Range,
with Bob Florence’s finger-busting arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” and had it stopped on that dime, I’d have already been wrapped up and sold. But there’s more than an hour of music yet to come, all of it high-octane super premium (and unleaded), as Norman and his intrepid colleagues weave their way through road-hugging charts by Florence, Kim Richmond, Roger Neumann, Jackson Stock and Anthony Wilson and along well-paved thoroughfares mapped out by Florence, Wilson, Bobby Lyle, Billy Strayhorn, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Carl Saunders, Randy Weston and Johnny Richards.
In searching for adjectives to describe Norman’s tight-knit coalition of remarkably accomplished musicians, the word “fearless” leaps to mind. What other group that size would dare wrap up an album by reprising four movements from Richards’ dynamic “Cuban Fire” suite, written for the prodigious Stan Kenton Orchestra. Thanks to Richmond’s mind-blowing arranging skills and the talents of everyone involved, the suite not only shakes the rafters but burns throughout with an intensity that rivals even the original.
Richmond also scored Lyle’s sunny “Secret Island” and Strayhorn’s memorable “Lush Life,” which follow “Autumn Leaves”; while Florence arranged Weston’s happy-go-lucky “Little Niles” (great brushwork by drummer Dick Weller) and his own ethereal ballad, “Lila,” on which his piano is in the forefront. The other superlative charts are by Jackson Stock (Mulligan’s lively “Jeru,” Saunders’ powerful “Message from Morphias”), Neumann (Sonny Rollins’ buoyant “Doxy”) and Wilson (his Brazilian-influenced “Séance”). Needless to say—but we’ll say it anyway—the ensemble is sharp, limber and letter-perfect on every one of them.
As every member of the group is not only an assiduous team player but a resourceful soloist as well, there’s never a letdown in that area. Almost everyone is given at least one chance to wing it, with Florence, trumpeters Saunders and Ron Stout, trombonist Andy Martin, alto/soprano Rusty Higgins and electric guitarist Larry Koonse especially persuasive. Neumann’s gruff baritone is heard on “Lush Life” and “Doxy,” Norman’s tenor only briefly on “Lush Life.”
Their mission is made easier by the ensemble’s enterprising rhythm section, anchored by super-drummer Weller and including the fabulous foursome of Florence, Koonse, monster bassist Trey Henry and sure-handed percussionist Michito Sanchez who detonates the explosives on “Secret Island” and “Cuban Fire.” There are fleeting moments, as on “Jeru” and “Little Niles,” when the group reminds one of Mulligan’s legendary tentet from the ‘50s, but for the most part it sounds like what it is, the Phil Norman Tentet, which is plenty good enough.
One of the great things about a tentet is that it can straddle the fence between a big band and small group, thus gladdening those who appreciate either. One of the great things about the Phil Norman Tentet is that there are none better. Wide Range is a spectacular album. Reserve a place for it on your Top Ten list for 2004.