SPOTLIGHT ON BIG BANDS & STRAIGHT-AHEAD ENSEMBLES

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

August 28, 2020

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND – “FOR JIMMY, WES AND OLIVER” – Mack Ave Records

Christian McBride, bass/bandleader/producer; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Quincy Phillips, drums; TRUMPETS: Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Brandon Lee, Nabate Isles & Anthony Hervey. TROMBONES: Michael Dease, Steve Davis, James Burton, Douglas Purviance. WOODWINDS: Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Dan Pratt & Carl Maraghi.

Christian McBride, bassist, arranger, producer and big band leader has assembled an all-star group of musicians to celebrate the unforgettable impact that organ master, Jimmy Smith, phenomenal guitarist and composer, Wes Montgomery, and iconic arranger, Oliver Nelson have made on Earth.

At the peak of his career, Oliver Nelson was producing and arranging music for jazz vocalist, Nancy Wilson, R&B trend-setter, James Brown, The Temptation singing group, organist Jimmy Smith and Diana Ross.  He was also composing for television shows like Ironside, Longstreet and The Six Million Dollar Man.  You may remember his composition “Stolen Moments” that became an anthem for jazz musicians around the world.  Nelson also played tenor saxophone on the original release of this trend-setting song, along with Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. We can’t forget that Eric Dolphy doubled on the alto saxophone on this recording. 

Oliver Nelson also arranged an old favorite of mine, “Night Train,” that opens this CD with a huge bang.  The band comes out swinging harder than Muhammad Ali at the ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight.  Track 2 follows this with the Wes Montgomery hit composition, “Road Song.”  Featuring a spirited solo by Mark Whitfield.

The premise for this Christian McBride Big Band album came from a session back in 1966 at the famous Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio of Rudy Van Gelder.  Over the course of two day, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith merged their talents to record two magical albums arranged by the great Oliver Nelson.  The first release was titled “The Dynamic Duo” and the second was marketed in 1968 as “Further Adventures of jimmy and Wes.”  Both Christian McBride and master organist, Joey DeFrancesco played those 33-1/3 albums over and over for years.  Their musical friendship has been nearly four decades in the making.  Once they realized how much both of them admired those two historic albums of music by Smith and Montgomery, a plan began to take shape. 

“Joey is, without question, my oldest friend in music,” McBride shared in his press package. “We met in middle school playing in the Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble.  We’ve recorded a few things here and there over the years, but we’ve never recorded an entire album together until now.  It seemed logical to salute the two albums that we listened to quite a bit as kids.”

Joey DeFranceso crashes into the spotlight on “Up Jumped Spring,” and this song is arranged specifically for the quartet.  DeFrancesco has long been one of this journalist’s favorite organ players, probably because he has a style and attack very similar to the late, great Jimmy Smith.  Joey plays with so much soul!  Christian McBride steps up on his double bass to share a wonderful solo, with Quincy Phillips dancing happily beneath him, using tasteful, rhythmic brushes.  “Milestones” races in, familiar to any jazz ear, with horns powerfully singing that opening none of us will ever forget.  DeFrancisco and Whitfield settle into their respective instruments and they are off and running.  Did you know that Miles Davis famously recruited Joey DeFrancesco into his band when the young man was just out of high school?  So, this song is particularly historic to the forceful organ player.  Mark Whitfield introduces us to the bluesy-side of the familiar ballad, “The Very Thought of You.”  Christian McBride bows his double bass with sensuosity and technical brilliance.

The three featured players on this project have each offered one original composition to be explored by the band.  Joey DeFrancesco adds “Don Is,” a sly tribute to bassist and record executive, Don Was, that is a compelling shuffle, propelled dynamically by Quincy Phillips.  This too is a quartet tune and it swings relentlessly.

Mark Whitfield has written a tribute to murdered civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, titled “Medgar Evers Blues.”  The 17-piece Christian McBride Big Band is certainly one of the most intoxicating of all the modern jazz big bands on the scene today.  They return, in force, during this arrangement, led by the sensitive and compelling guitar of Whitfield.   The big band’s debut album wowed the jazz community with its release on Mack Ave Records back in 2011. It could be because of their mix of up-and-coming star-quality players and veteran musicians, many who are bandleaders in their own right.  You hear their precision attacks and sweet crescendos during this piece.  The horns cushion and electrify the stage for both DeFrancesco and Whitfield to solo.  You can clearly hear McBride walking his bass steadfastly beneath the powerful band and Quincy Phillips strongly supports everyone, adding his own tasteful licks and sixteenth notes on his trap drums, but never discarding the solid two-and-four support that holds this groove together effortlessly.  That’s one of the reasons The Christian McBride Big Band has racked up two Grammy Awards for both their other album releases.  I expect this one has the brilliance and star-power to do just that.

Christian McBride offers us “Pie Blues,” co-written with Joey DeFrancesco, to close out this album. Happily, they give a couple of their outstanding horn players an opportunity to solo and shine.   It’s a low-down, soulful blues, whose groove makes you wanna sop your biscuit in gravy and slow dance with someone you love. 

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THE RADAM SCHWARTZ ORGAN BIG BAND with DAVID F. GIBSON on drums – “MESSAGE FROM GROOVE AND GW” – Arabesque Records

Radam Schwartz, organ/bandleader; Charlie Sigler, guitar; David F. Gibson, drums; SAXOPHONES: Anthony Ware & Danny Raycraft, alto saxophones; Abel Mireles & Gene Ghee, tenor saxophone; Ben Kovacks, baritone sax. TRUMPETS: Ted Chubb, Ben Hankle, James Cage & Lee Hogans. TROMBONE: Peter Lin & Andrae Murchison.

The Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band shuffles onto the scene with a swing-dance gem called “Trouble Just Won’t Go Away,” written by Schwartz.  It’s a great jazz swing tune.  I want to grab a partner and hit the dance floor. Charlie Sigler takes a spirited guitar solo during this arrangement.   Organist, Radam Schwartz, remembers how exciting it was to hear Richard “Groove” Holmes collaborate with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.  On that record, he recorded two songs playing all the bass parts himself.  Radam Schwartz decided to become the first organist, technically strong enough, to play all the bass lines throughout an entire big band album.  Consequently, he has dedicated this album to his inspirations: “Groove” (Holmes) and Gerald Wilson (GW).   Additionally, Schwartz has written three original compositions for this project and arranged five of the ten songs included. John Coltrane’s composition “Blues Minor” is the next track.  The band swings and Danny Raycraft (on Alto saxophone) and Abel Mireles, on tenor sax, each make impressive solo statements.  Schwartz has arranged the Aretha Franklin hit record, “Aint No Way” (penned by her sister Carolyn), as a jazzy swing number.  This was done in the tradition of organist Charles Earland, who was known to turn an R&B hit song into a swinging jazz arrangement. Trumpeter, Ted Chubb, solos on this arrangement along with Gene Ghee on tenor sax and guitarist Charlie Sigler sings the melody.  When Radam Schwartz enters on his organ, the background horns play call and response to his chords and organ licks. This ensemble is exciting and their grooves are what we call, ‘in-the-pocket’ !  All the players perform tightly together as a unit and are sparkling stars individually.  The entire Radam Schwartz album is pure fun.  Drummer David F. Gibson pushes the band’s performance on his busy drum set.  He’s a solid player with an impressive resume.  Gibson has recorded with Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington orchestra, Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir and Harry “Sweets” Edison to list just a few.  He’s very familiar with organ players, having worked with the great Shirley Scott, the inimitable Jimmy McGriff and Don Patterson.

Radam Schwartz is no newcomer to the entertainment scene and the business of jazz.  Originally a pianist, at a casual jam session he touched the organ and fell in love with that instrument.   He has performed with several amazing jazz names including silky smooth jazz crooner, Arthur Prysock, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Russell Malone, Cecil Brooks III, David “Fathead” Newman and Russell Gunn.  Schwartz has been a busy session musician, appearing on over forty recordings.  This is his tenth album release, after leading or co-leading nine other albums.  As a jazz educator, he’s been an instructor at Jazz house Kids for the last thirteen years.  He’s also the director of the Rutgers Newark Mosaic Jazz Ensemble.

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RALPH PETERSON –“THE MESSENGER LEGACY: ONWARD & UPWARD” – Onyx Records

Ralph Peterson, drums/arranger/composer/bandleader; Joanne Brackeen, Anthony Wonsey & Zaccal Curtis, piano; Peter Washington, Melissa Slocum, Lonnie Plaxico & Essiet Essiet, bass; Relnaldo DeJesus, percussion; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; Bill Pierce & Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Phillip Harper & Brian Lynch, trumpet; Steve Davis & Robin Eubanks, trombone.

Master drummer, Ralph Peterson, continues to celebrate his late mentor, Art Blakey, on this latest recording.  One exciting thing about Peterson’s historic production is that he has brought together a number of former Jazz Messengers (fourteen in all) and three Legacy Messengers for this production.  The choice to include seventeen musicians on this project was deliberate.  The number “17” is a reflection of Blakey’s first working band back in 1947.  At that time, Art led a large ensemble that was called “The Seventeen Messengers.”   However, although Peterson has purposefully included a large number of musicians, this is no big band.  Most of the tunes showcase sextets, along with one septet and one quintet production.

You will hear the great Joanne Brackeen on piano during the opening tune, a Ralph Peterson original composition titled, “Forth and Back.”  Ms. Brackeen takes a spontaneous and delightful solo, with the horns punching sometimes dissonant chords that immediately grab my attention.  Phillip Harper, on trumpet, tenor saxophonist, Jean Toussaint and Craig Handy on Alto take turns soloing.  Peter Washington, on double bass, also strides into the spotlight with fervor and zeal. He played with a version of the Jazz Messenger Big Band in 1988 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.

“I met NEA Jazz Master, Joanne Brackeen, while a student at Rutgers when she came to perform with our Big Band there.  She brought the challenging tune Egyptian Dune Dance to that concert and I remember being the only drummer there who could play it.  I’ve been a fan ever since and now we are colleagues at Berklee College of Music.  Her tune on this project, ‘Tricks of the Trade’ was great fun to play,” Peterson praised the legendary pianist.

On Track 2, The song “Sonora” is named for the daughter of Ralph Peterson and Melissa Slocum. Slocum makes a dynamic bass solo appearance on this track. 

There are eleven well written and performed songs on this “Onward & Upward” CD that perpetuates the Jazz Messenger legacy.  There are notes included in their CD jacket that explain, at length, each players relationship to being a part of this brilliant legacy.  This project sparkles with excellence in both personnel, composition, arranging and the value of historic accomplishments in jazz.

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SOUTH FLORIDA JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CHEAP THRILLS” – THE MUSIC OF RICK MARGITZA – Summit Records

Chuck Bergeron, acoustic & electric bass/orchestra leader; Martin Bejerano, piano; John Hart, guitar; John Yarling, drums; Xavier DeSandre Navarre, percussion; WOODWINDS & SAXOPHONES: Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush & Mike Brignola;David Leon,baritone saxophone/bass clarinet;Phil Doyle, tenor sax. TRUMPETS: Greg Gisbert, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato, Jared Hall & John Daversa; Brian Lynch, featured trumpet soloist. TROMBONES: Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal & Major Bailey; Derek Pyle & Haden Mapei, featured trombonists.  PRODUCERS: John Fedchock & Rick Margitza.

The music of Rick Margitza is being celebrated on this album of fine music by The South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Rick Margitza was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1961 and at the age of four, his beloved, paternal grandfather taught him to play violin.  His father played violin with the Detroit Symphony orchestra. Young Rick played oboe and piano too, but in high school, he finally settled on a genuine love for the tenor saxophone. 

Chuck Bergeron is the bassist and bandleader of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Over the years, Margitza and Chuck Bergeron’s paths kept crossing. They first met in New Orleans, where the young sax man moved in 1984 to work at a World’s Fair gig.  Rick Margitza encouraged Chuck Bergeron to study at the University of Miami.  Bergeron took him up on the suggestion.  Later, the two friends both wound up moving to New York,where they performed together and were also roommates.

“When I first met Rick, he was just an amazing tenor player from Detroit,” Bergeron recalled in his press package.  “It developed into a thirty-year friendship.  He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with; the kind of player that raises the level of all the musicians around him.  For me, it’s always been a real special treat to get to play music with Rick.”

Clearly, Rick Margitza made an impression on everyone around him.  Bergeron appears on Margitza’s first Blue Note Record label release on a compilation produced and titled, “New Stars on Blue Note.” One icon who recognized the young man’s talent was Miles Davis, who asked him to play with him on his “Human Nature” album.  You can detect the influence of Margitza’s Gypsy background on some of his saxophone improvisations.  He also toured with Maynard Ferguson and played for years with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“Cheap Thrills” celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of Chuck Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra and Bergeron has brought together an all-star ensemble representing the best from their South Florida jazz scene.  Many are fellow faculty members at the University of Miami and are familiar with both Rick Margitza and his compositions.  Bergeron’s amazing orchestra models itself after the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (also known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).  Chuck Bergeron is proud of his orchestra’s residency at Miami’s now-defunct Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club. 

Their opening tune, and the title of this album, is “Cheap Thrills” and features an awesome solo by Rick Hart on guitar, with strong horn lines that sing the catchy melody.  The composition, “Widow’s Walk” is a very beautiful, Latin-flavored ballad and brings back memories of another time and place for Chuck Bergeron.

“Widow’s Walk, for instance, was one of the two songs documented for the ‘New Stars on Blue Note’ album.  It’s one of the tunes that I most equate with him.  To me, it’s signature Margitza.  We recorded it with a small band when he was first starting out, so it’s very nostalgic and special to revisit it with him and my big band all these years later,” Bergeron shared.

There are plenty of bright musical moments on this John Fedchock production.  “Brace Yourself” originally was recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut titled, “Color.”  It swings pretty hard, with strong percussion lines that interject Afro-Cuban influences into the arrangement. They shine the spotlight on drummer John Yarling, who takes full advantage of it with an unforgettable solo.  “45 Pound hound” features the exciting trumpet of Grammy Award-winner, Brian Lynch.  The biggest challenge came, according to Bergeron and producer, John Fedchock, on the tune “Premonition.”   This composition is long and after rehearsals, Fedchock and Bergeron agreed at two stopping points in the nearly 10-minute tune.  They wanted to break it up into three parts for the benefit of the band.  However, for some reason, the band played straight through the ‘stopping points’. Afterwards, there was stunned silence in the studio until Fedchock’s voice whispered into the mic, “What did you think about that?”  Bergeron’s voice bellowed in response, “I love this f—ing band!”

Chuck Bergeron was born and raised in New Orleans, the celebrated womb of jazz, and has been an in-demand bass player forty years and is still going.  After studying at Loyola University and the University of Miami, he joined the Woody Herman and Buddy Rich band before moving to New York.  It didn’t take long for his reputation to inspire a host of celebrities to invite him on performance and recording dates. Some of the legendary musicians he has worked with are Stan Getz, Randy Brecker, Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Abercrombie, James Moody, Stanley Jordan and Elvis Costello.  He has released eight albums as a bandleader and four with the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. Twenty years ago, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Miami and he currently runs the Jazz Bass Studio and is Director of the Jazz Pedagogy Program at the University’s Frost School of Music.

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THE BIG BAD BONES FEATURING SCOTT WHITFIELD – “EMERGENCY VEHICLE BLUES” – Summit Records

Ben Tweedt, piano/keyboard/composer; Doug Montera, drums; Mike Haar, acoustic & electric bass; Steve Wilson, bass trombone; Scott Whitfield, Brett Stamps & Pete Madsen, tenor trombones.

This album is a fresh and wonderful production that features a montage of trombone excellence.  Opening with the title tune, “Emergency Vehicle Blues,” the trombones blend smoothly and seamlessly.   Their harmonies, sung by a group of all-star trombone players, present a warm and silky sound. Doug Mantera pushes the Straight-ahead groove on his trap drums and Mark Haar’s walking bass locks into the mix appropriately.  The piano solo of Ben Tweedt stands out brightly at the top of the tune.  Towards the end, we are drawn into a city of sirens, asphalt and horn cries.  Scott Whitfield, based in Los Angeles, is internationally respected, having appeared from Australia to Zurich and everywhere in between.  He is the featured trombonist on this album. Whitfield is a complimentary member of the Nat Adderley Sextet and also performs regularly as a guest player with the United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble.  Tenor trombonist, Brett Stamps is the composer of all the original music on this production and he’s the in-house, resident composer for The Big Bad Bones Band.  Brett is an alumnus from the Stan Kenton Orchestra and can be heard on three different Kenton records. 

“Writing music is exhilarating.  Performing it with this group of musicians is incredibly rewarding.  What a pleasure to be part of this endeavor,” gushes Brett Stamps in the liner notes.

Pete Madsen is the other tenor trombone player.   He resides in Omaha and is the current Coordinator of Jazz Studies at the University of Nebraska.  Steve Wilson is also a respected educator, based in Texas where he serves as Music Department Chair at the University of El Paso.  Ben Tweedt lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and bassist, Mark Haar, resides in Omaha. Despite these musicians joining The Big Bad Bones from different parts of our country, they blend handsomely, fitting their talents together like a custom-tailored suit on a very tall man.  This awesome band towers above the standard, sharing unique arrangements, expertly written compositions and personalized talents.    

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