BIG BAND BEAUTY AND COMBO CREATIVITY

BIG BAND BEAUTY AND COMBO CREATIVITY

By jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil

February 28, 2018

IRA B. LISS BIG BAND JAZZ MACHINE – “TASTY TUNES”
Tall Man Productions

Ira B. Liss, producer; Steve Sibley, piano; Lance Jeppesen, bass; Alex Ciavarelli, guitar; Charlie Mcghee, drums; Mark Lamson, percussion; Janet Hammer, vocals. SAXOPHONES: Christopher Hollyday & Richard McGuane, alto/soprano saxophones; Tyler Richardson, alto saxophone; David Castel de Oro, tenor sax/flute; Joel Ginsberg, tenor & soprano sax; Ross Rizzo Jr., baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Randy Aviles, lead; Mark Nicholson, Peter Green, Collin Reichow, & Carlos Roldan. TROMBONES: Gary Bucher. Lead. David Bernard, David Murray, & Tim Hall, bass trombone. ARRANGERS: Eric Richards, Tom Kubis, Drew Zaremba, Mike Crotty, Carl Murr, Alan Baylock, Peter Herbolzheimer, Mike Abene and Dean Brown. SPECIAL GUESTS: Bob Mintzer, tenor sax/composer; Holly Hofmann, alto flute; Dean Brown, guitar/composer; Eric Marienthal, alto saxophone.

Right out of the gate, this big band races into the sound space with the fastest rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” that I’ve ever heard. It was an exciting production with arrangements full of ebullition. Steve Sibley’s piano solo is impressive. Hats off to Eric Richards who is the arranger that transformed this tender ballad, elevating it to a maddening pace. The Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine is an 18-piece orchestra and has been a fixture in the southern California area for nearly four decades. The band’s leader, Ira B. Lisa, is six-foot-seven-inches tall and like his music, he towers head and shoulders above other local bands as a leader and producer.

“Early Autumn” is arranged by Tom Kubis and features Eric Marienthal wailing away on alto saxophone. It’s a lovely ballad, and Marienthal brings a visceral presence, especially once the tune is double-timed and the big band swings it into a power-house production. Janet Hammer is lead vocalist on “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and her smooth presentation also transforms to become a harmonic addition to the horn section. Bob Mintzer’s original composition, “When the Lady Dances,” is a strong swing tune with an intricate melody line and lots of punchy horns that dance along harmonically and inspire the rhythm section. Special guest, Holly Hofmann, captures the essence of “Nature Boy“ with an inspired flute solo. Drummer, Charlie McGhee, is the star on “Recon” an original composition by Dean Brown. McGhee steals the spotlight during his drum solo and beyond. All in all, every track on this CD is well produced and delightfully arranged. If you are a lover of big band music, this is the ultimate box of chocolates. Each tune becomes a unique and pleasant surprise.

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THE BIG BAND SIDE OF ANDREW NEU – “CATWALK”
CGN Records

Andrew Neu, tenor saxophone/flute/alto flute; SAXOPHONES: Jeff Driskill, lead alto; Dan Kaneyuki, alto; Vince Trombetta, tenor; Ken Fisher, baritone. TRUMPETS: Anthony Bonsera, lead; Jeff Jarvis, Jamie Hovorka,split lead; Mike Stever. TROMBONES: Andrew Lippman, lead; Paul Young, split lead; Charlie Morillas, split lead; Dve Ryan, split lead; Steve Hughes, bass trombone. RHYTHM: Andy Langham, piano; Matt Hornbeck, guitar; David Hughes, bass; Jamey Tate, drums/percussion; Craig Fundyga, vibes; Stephanie O’Keefe, French horn.

After years of dreaming about it and planning for it, Andrew Neu has decided to concentrate his talents inside this debut big band project. The result is a formidable production. This is a far call from his four earlier releases as a solo artist, where he recorded more contemporary jazz CDs. I’ve always enjoyed Neu’s saxophone sensibilities in the past, so I was eager to hear the new music. For this project, Neu reaches back to the historic and awe-inspiring music of some of his idols; music masters like Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones, Stan Kenton, Chuck Mangione and more have inspired this young arranger and saxophonist. Andrew Neu has composed eight of the eleven songs on this album and is ably assisted by some stellar players in Southern California. He dedicates this work of art to the masters who paved the way for his own creativity to blossom. This project is produced by Brian Bromberg and some of his featured guests are Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Wayne Bergeron, Eric Marienthal, Gordon Goodwin and Rick Braun. All pieces are arranged and conducted by Andrew Neu and his big band charts are available at Kendor Music and Marina Music.

On The opening original song, “Juggernaut,” Andrew Lippman solos on trombone, an instrument that always reminds me of the human voice. Andrew Neu flies across the music on his tenor saxophone. This composition is both spirited and melodic, leaving lots of room for the orchestra harmonics to soar. Another of Neu’s original compositions is “Zerrano.” It features a joyful arrangement, sewn with Latin influences, running like stitches through the rhythms that strongly hold the fabric of this song together. Randy Brecker plays a fluid and emotional trumpet solo. Jamey Tate is spectacular on drums, covering every note of this tune with a blanket of rhythm mastery and percussive surprise. As a composer, Andrew Neu does not disappoint. His arrangements are full of spunk and beauty. Every cut on this project is a sparkling stone set in a crown of musical achievement.

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AKIRA TANA – “JAZZaNOVA”
Vega Label

Akira Tana, drums/producer; Peter Horvath, piano/Fender Rhodes; Ricardo Peixoto, acoustic/electric guitars; Gary Brown, acoustic bass; Michael Spiro, percussion; Claudio Amaral, Sandy Cressman, Carla Helmbrcht, Jackie Ryan, Claudia Villeta & Maria Volonte, vocals; SPECIAL GUESTS: Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Arturo Sandoval, trumpeter.

I have long been fascinated by the Brazilian songbook and its talented composers. The exciting artists who interpret this infectious South American music have been hand-picked by this drummer/producer. Percussive expert, Akiro Tano, has gathered an impressive list of talent together for this project. This project is sweet and beautiful, like a scattering of Cattleya labiate or Corsage Orchids in a big, colorful basket of songs. Opening with “Aquas de Marco”, (a Jobim composition) Arturo Sandoval is featured on trumpet and Claudio Amaral vocally duets with Claudia Villela. One of my favorite compositions by Ivan Lins with co-writers, Paul Williams, Vitor Martins and Gilson Peranzzetta is “Love Dance.” Carla Helmbrecht is the vocalist who smoothly interprets these poetic lyrics. Branford Marsalis adds tenor saxophone in appropriate places, enhancing this perfect sound-painting with light brush strokes of genius. His sensitivity is worthy of mention and praise. Akira Tana moves from this emotional ballad to an uptempo, danceable arrangement of “Chega de Saudade.” Ricardo Peixoto has arranged this Jobim tune and transports us to Carnival, surrounded by the happy voices of Jackie Ryan and Maria Volonte who share both Portuguese and English versions of the lyrics. I’m familiar with this composition as “No More Blues.” You cannot possibly be blue or melancholy while listening to this ebullient production. Akira Tana punches the rhythm, shuffling beneath the well-sung lyrics like a freight train. The drums are always pushing this production forward. I do wish there were a few more up-tempo, exuberant arrangements on this well-produced CD. I miss the Brazilian excitement and Carnival atmosphere of double time and more allegro-inspired tempos. Still, the talent and production itself shines with musical proficiency and these musicians celebrate Easy Listening Brazilian jazz at its best with Akira Tana as the percussive combustible force.

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JAMES HALL – “LATTICE”
Outside In Music

James Hall, trombone; Jamie Baum, flute/alto flute; Deanna Witkowski, piano/Rhodes; Tom DiCarlo, bass; Allan Mednard, drums. SPECIAL GUEST: Sharei Cassity, alto saxophone.

Trombonist James Hall has composed six of the eight songs on this production. Hall weaves together flute and trombone in a smooth combination of contrasts, blending tone and arrangements that prominently feature Jamie Baum on various flutes. James Hall, a native of Nebraska who is now New York City based, has dabbled in several projects that have included jazz, classical, Latin and pop music. He has won three ASCAPlus Awards for composition, and holds degrees from the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin and the Aaron Copland School of Music in New York. I found the horn lines arranged on “Black Narcissus,” a Joe Henderson composition, to reflect a big band sound, even though this is a small combo. Part of the fullness of sound could be due to the addition of Sharel Cassity on alto saxophone. The title tune, “Lattice” (which Thesaurus describes as a matrix, a framework or mesh web) I found to be ethereal and beautiful, giving the trombonist an opportunity to sing atop the Fender Rhodes piano in a lovely way. This tune is other-worldly and draws me into the composition like quicksand. The melody is haunting. I learn from the liner notes that Lattice is dedicated to his wife, Kristen, and can also mean two pieces crossing. Hall says that this composition highlights their romance, engagement and marriage. It’s a very tender tune.

On the other hand, “Brittle Stitch” is more up-tempo and adds swing to the mix, featuring a bluesy solo exploration by pianist Deanna Witkowski. This journalist enjoyed every cut on this CD and I appreciate the concept of a lattice, inclusive of world events, relationships, musical textures and musicians. All have inspired Hall’s dynamic project.
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THE MICA BETHEA BIG BAND – “SUITE THEORY”
Independent Label

Mica Bethea, arranger/composer; Josh Bowlus, piano/Rhodes; James Hogan, guitar; Dennis Marks, bass; John Lumpkin Jr., drums; Terry ‘Doc’ Handy, percussion; TRUMPETS: Greg Balut, Dave Champagne, Daniel Rollan, Ray Callender. TROMBONES: Michael Deese, Diego Herrada ‘de la Vega’ Ventura, & Lance Reed. Gina ‘Badeeduh’ Benalcazar, bass trombone. Todd DelGiudice & Daniel Dickinson, alto,tenor, soprano saxophone/flute. Juan Carlos Rollan, tenor & alto saxophone/flute. Jose Rojas, tenor & also saxophones/clarinet; Seth Ebersole, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet.

In July of 2017, I first experienced the work of Mica Bethea and his extraordinary big band arrangements while reviewing his CD, “Stage ‘N Studio.” On this former CD, he was experimenting with merging contemporary funk-fusion with big band arrangements and he blew my mind! As I wrote back in 2017, ‘I was hooked right from the opening cut.’

On this new project, Bethea has composed all original music. With both parents as musicians, his dad playing trumpet and piano and his mom as a vocalist, he was exposed to jazz at a very early age. His father was also a radio disc jockey in the 1970’s. So, music was always a very present part of the household and the young man’s life. This current project is an exploration of Mica Bethea’s life from the inside out. It was written while he was studying for his Master’s degree at the University of Northern Florida. He has written it in four movements, each corresponding to a period of his life. The first movement is titled, “Crystal Clear” and is representative of his carefree early childhood days, all the way up to age twenty-one. The music is bright, full of hope and promise. It’s exploratory, happy and enthusiastic music, capturing the freedom children feel. Featuring Ray Callender on trumpet, Dennis Marks on bass, Michael Deese on a stunning trombone solo, and Juan Carlos Rollan, stellar on saxophone. Rollan puts the blues into the mix with his horn. Then comes the second movement, “Destiny’s Boat.” It is more pensive, with harmonies and crescendos leading up to some soul-searching music.

This is a biographical project. You should probably be aware of the stories behind each suite to further appreciate the composer’s candor. Mica Bethea was studying music at the University of Northern Florida in Jacksonville. He took a brief vacation, driving home to visit family and on his return trip, as he sat, stopped in traffic, he was crashed into by a big rig truck going 85mph. The results changed his life. Although he survived the crash, he was left a quadriplegic. “Destiny’s Boat” is a musical representation of awaking after that accident. As a young, vibrant music student, with his whole life ahead of him, you can imagine how devastating this incident was. He could no longer play. He was no longer mobile. After the depression that followed this realization, he had a rebirth of sorts, but it was a long and tedious process. Josh Bowlus brings brightness and hope with his keyboard skills and Todd DelGiudice is featured prominently on reeds. He brings the confusion and frustration that Mica must have felt, delivering it during his inspired solos. Bethea appreciated DelGiudice’s performance so much that he included an alternate take on this suite as part of this release. John Lumpkin Jr. and Terry “Doc” Handy also add spunk and fire with their percussive accompaniment.

The final suite, “Guardian of Forever” is dedicated to his mother, who quit her job to nurse her son and to inspire his grit and determination. She knew he had to carry-on, in spite of his injuries. She knew he had precious gifts to share with the world.

The most difficult thing about composing an album of all original work is grabbing the attention of the listener’s ear. We are an audience often listening for the familiar strains of melodies and arrangements we recognize. There is none of that on this recording, but you will still find big band goodness and greatness, expressed in both the composing skills and arranging talents of Mica Bethea. Here is another precious, musical gift he offers to the world.

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MICHAEL MOSS ACCIDENTAL ORCHESTRA – “HELIX “
4th Stream Records

Michael Moss, composer/producer/artistic Director/B flat clarinet; VIOLINS: Jason Kao Hwang, Rosi Hertlein & Fung Chem Hwei; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Lenny Mims & Carol Buck, cellos; Steve Swell, trombone; Vincent Chance, French horn; Waldron Mahdi Ricks, trumpet; Richard Keene, oboe; Elliott Levin, flute/tenor saxophone; Ras Moshe Burnett, soprano & tenor saxophones; Michael Lytle, bass clarinet; Steve Cohn, piano; Billy Stein, guitar; Rick Lannacone, ambient guitar; Larry Roland, string bass; Warren Smith, percussion/vibraphones; Badal Roy, tabla; Chuck Fertal, drums.

If Avant Garde, free-form jazz is your preference, you will enjoy listening to the outer limits of Dr. Michael Moss’s artistic creativity. Michael Moss is a 50-year veteran of the New York “free” jazz scene. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and a composer, Chicago-born. At times, this music reminds me of the Chicago Art Ensemble, except that this production features a twenty-two piece orchestra. The Moss production is all over the place, spewing energy and combining instruments and notes in a unique and often dissonant manner. The title of this album, “Helix,” can mean an object that is three dimensional or a chain of atoms. Certainly, this music evolves like a chain of interpretations described by suites.
He has labeled the first suite of music, “The Old One” (that is Einstein’s name for God) and there are five parts included: “Inception”, “Bridge,” “Qabbala,” “Bardo,” and “The Mind of God.” The final twenty-minute song is titled in all caps, “SEE SHARP OR BE FLAT/C# OR B flat. Thus, on this project, we are introduced to Moss debuting two major compositions.

On “Qabbala” we finally hear some semblance of melody and orthodox structure, with delightful percussion bouncing the production around like a children’s rental, backyard, bounce house. It’s very Middle Eastern influenced and reminds me of some background music you would hear behind the HBO “Homeland” series. “Bardo” exposes a softer side of Michael Moss, using lots of strings and fly-away horns that squeak, moan and groan their messages, reverberating animalism. This is an inimitable project that Moss describes as an initiation into sacred ground. He views it as part of a musical tradition stretching from early ritual over the dead to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. He musically incorporates Native American rites of passage into the spirit world, the Jewish mourner’s Kaddish ceremony and Buddhist funeral rituals into this presentation. I was particularly drawn to the final “SEE SHARP OR BE FLAT” composition that features a provocative violin solo with complimentary string ensemble support. This composition gives more opportunity for individual players to step forward and solo. I found the guitar solo to be outstanding with Warren Smith’s percussion bright and tasty beneath it. Speaking of drums, there is as lengthy and pleasing drum and percussion solo towards the end of this twenty-minute production that is worth the wait. If you have a taste for a project that’s out-of-the-ordinary, the Accidental Orchestra will sooth your palate.

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