BIG BANDS BRING GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC TO THE SPOTLIGHT & MORE

February 14, 2016
Cd reviews by jazz journalist/Dee Dee McNeil

THE GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC ENSEMBLE – “All In The Game”
Jazzed Media Records

Doug Richards, director/arranger/producer; Weldon Hill, piano/electric Piano; Victor Dvoskin,bass; Howard Curtis,drums/percussion; Marty Nau,lead alto saxophone/soprano saxophone/clarinet; Jim Nesbit, alto, soprano, baritone saxophones/basset horn/bass clarinet/bassoon/contra bassoon/Assistant Producer; Skip Gailes, tenor,soprano,alto saxophones/flute/bass clarinet; John Winn, tenor, soprano,alto saxophones/clarinet/bass clarinet; Rob Holmes, baritone, alto saxophones/flute/bass clarinet; Roy Muth,lead trumpet/ flugelhorn; Bob Ransom, trumpet/Flugelhorn; John D’earth, trumpet/flugelhorn; Rob DeDominick, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jim McFalls, lead trombone; Dean Englert, trombone, euphonium; Lee Gause, bass trombone. Special Guests: Rene Marie, vocalist; Jon Faddis, trumpeter; Joe Kennedy, Jr., violinist.

Doug Richards has assembled a stellar line-up of musicians to interpret his creative arrangements. From the very first composition, “In The Mood”, I am enthralled by the unusual horn harmonics and energy of this ensemble. As a small girl, I used to love to hear Lena Horne sing their number two selection. Special guest, Rene Marie, adds her sexy, smoky vocals to this song and thoughtfully includes the introductory verse. “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” never sounded so good. I especially enjoyed the Rob Holmes baritone saxophone solo. Adding this instrument in contrast to Ms. Marie’s soprano vocal gymnastics was a stroke of genius.

There are many opportunities for these musicians to shine while executing Richards’ dazzling arrangements. Jon Faddis adds his creative virtuoso on trumpet to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” performed here as a moderate tempo Bossa Nova. This ‘Standard’ soon morphs into a double bass swing tune with Faddis pushing the boundaries of his trumpet into bird songs that mimic what a flautist might play. “Wow,” is all this journalist can say. As usual, Faddis is phenomenal.

The arrangements on this recording are spectacular. At first, the late Joe Kennedy, Jr. plucks his violin, like a southern steel guitar player, introducing us to “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Nice touch when the horn section moans and harmonizes in the background, amply supporting his unusual interpretation. Once Kennedy begins to bow that violin, the beauty flows warm and thick like honey. Howard Curtis drives the ensemble with expert precision and tasty licks on drums and percussion. All in all, there are several wonderful surprises on this project that will both delight and inspire the listener.

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VALERY PONOMAREV JAZZ BIG BAND – “Our Father Who Art Blakey”
Zoho Records

Valery Ponomarev, trumpet/composer/arranger/conductor; Todd Bashore, lead reed player; Chris Hemingway, alto saxophone; Steven Carrington, tenor saxophonist; Peter Brainin, lead tenor saxophone; Andrew Gould, tenor sax; Anthony Nelson, baritone sax; Josh Evans, trumpet; Chris Rogers, trumpet; Waldron Ricks, trumpet; Stafford Hunter, lead trombone; Alvin Walker, trombone; David White, trombone; Jack Jeffers, trombone; Corey Wallace, trombone; Danny Hall, trombone; Mamiko Watanabe, piano; Rusian Khain, bass; Victor Jones, drums; Special guest: Benny Golson (on Moanin’ and Blues March)

Valery Ponomarev arrived in NYC from his Russian homeland with his trumpet clutched to his chest along with his dreams. Ponomarev’s story is documented in an autobiography called “On the Flip Side of Sound.” It later became an award winning documentary by Edward Topol titled, “Trumpeter From Russia.” In New York, Ponomarev met one of his idols, Art Blakey, who became his mentor and ‘jazz father’. This painstaking work of creativity pays tribute to Blakey’s drum mastery and influence. The incredibly talented trumpeter/arranger/ conductor has transformed Blakey’s work into big band charts. He explained why in his linear notes:

“If you listen closely, (Blakey’s music) is a big band already. Art Blakey’s concept, Art Blakey’s way of playing, his whole approach to music comes from big bands. … Art Blakey played with Duke Ellington, he played with Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, he was the drummer in Billy Eckstine’s big band. The original Messengers of 1949 was a big band. That’s where his learning came from. He was not a small group player yet. In Russia, the first record I got was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, with Lee Morgan, playing Moanin. That was it! … If you ask me what to send to outer space as an example of jazz music, I would send that record and that would be it.”

This recording is a conscious decision to celebrate songs that Art Blakey recorded over the years. The second cut is “Moanin”, after the one minute “Ovature.” According to the linear notes, this Bobby Timmons composition was originally a funky little phrase the pianist played on gigs to call the rest of the Messengers back to the bandstand after their break. Ponomarev’s special guest on this album, ‘Benny Golson’, was the one who encouraged Timmons to develop the riff into a complete composition. Thus was born, “Moanin”.

Ponomarev makes sure, throughout his project, that he celebrates some of the original solos by the great musicians who created them. If you listen closely, you will hear him salute trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Timmoms too, weaving in familiar ‘licks’ and ‘phrases’ in his arrangements that came from that original 1958 recording of “Moanin.”

“In the arrangements I write, very often I quote complete solos because that solo in itself becomes a piece of music, like a written tune, except it was not written. It was improvised. So it’s music and it should be preserved.”

Here is an arranger/conductor who likes to hear the horns move as rapidly as a Charlie Parker riff, in harmony and perfectly on point. I love that concept. You can hear it quite clearly on “Jordu” composed by Duke Jordan. This tune quickly became one of my favorite cuts on this straight-ahead jazz band project. Clifford Brown is associated with this tune and Ponomarev praises the iconic trumpeter with being one of his heroes. He also explains that in 1954 Brown was a member of Blakey’s 1954 “A Night at Birdland” edition of the Messengers. At the top of the tune, the intricate horn lines that follow the head are actually transcribed and harmonized from Brownie’s splendid solo. Chris Rogers is outstanding on trumpet.

Benny Golson appears on “Moanin’” and also on the seventh cut, “Blues March”, that Golson composed. He was inspired by Blakey’s remark to him that he had never recorded a march. So Golson set out to write a New Orleans flavored march for his friend and band-mate, rooted in blues and gospel. This composition is the results. It was recorded “Live” at the “Zinc Bar” in NYC. You can hear the excitement and appreciation from the attentive audience as they enthusiastically applaud throughout.

This CD is a winner, featuring a number of fine jazz musicians like Josh Evans on trumpet, Mamiko Watanabe on piano (who stretches out on the “Blues March” and is the only female in this band). Steven Carrington is a force to be reckoned with on Freddie Hubbard’s tune, “Crisis” and Anthony Nelson on baritone saxophone thrilled me with his solo on “Gina’s Cooking”.

Special kudos to the gifted drummer Victor Jones, who holds this project in place like a steel bolt in the Hudson River Bridge. I believe that Art Blakey must be smiling down from heaven with pride and pleasure.

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PEDRO GIRAUDO BIG BAND – “Cuentos”
Zoho Records

Pedro Giraudo, acoustic & electric basses/composer/arranger; Jess Jurkovic, piano; Claudio Ragazzi, guest guitarist; Franco Pinna, drums; Paulo Stagnaro, percussion; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, Mark Miller, Nate Mayland, trombones; Jonathan Powell, Miki Hirose, Mat Jodrell, Josh Deutsch, trumpets & flugelhorns; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Luke Batson, tenor, saxophone/flute clarinet; John Ellis, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Alejandro Aviles, alto/soprano saxophones/flute; Todd Bashore, alto & soprano saxophones/flute.

This recording celebrates the composer/arranger skills of Pedro Giraudo. The title “Cuentos” is Spanish for “Tales” or stories. Each composition unveils an individual chapter of the composer’s imagination and experience, while also blending the rhythms and culture of Venezuela, Argentina, with the freedom of American jazz. Giraudo is no newcomer to recording. After fourteen years of composing and releasing albums for septets and 12-piece jazz orchestras, he has tackled composing and arranging for a big band with great joy and eagerness.

This arranger seems to prefer a clean slate, where soloists begin to sketch their sound-stories without much help from the big band at first. Giraudo brings the harmonics in tentatively behind the solos on the “Angela Suite.” Within the five parts of this suite, he sometimes lets the instrumentation fly free, as if a tornado has ripped through the band and all the instruments start going crazy in one crashing, crescendo of free-form-phrasing. Giraudo’s a dramatic composer/ arranger that enjoys surprising his listeners in a more classical tradition. The eighth cut on this recording, “Push Gift” is a good example of this.

I miss the melodic element that made people around the world embrace compositions like Ellington’s “Satin Doll”. After listening to this album twice, I still could not hum or remember one song melody. As a composer, you hope that people will remember your songs and sing them again and again. It would be challenging to do so in this case. However, I found the composition “Nube”, the final cut on this CD, intoxicating. What a haunting and beautiful description of ‘clouds’. Carl Maraghl’s baritone saxophone is sensuous and impressive as a soloist on this tune. But once again, although I enjoyed the arrangement, the melody escaped me after several bars. Here is a concert of cultures and harmonics that is interesting, engaging and incredibly dramatic. If the composer/arranger was seeking to produce an emotionally sensitive, visceral project, he has succeeded.

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THE STRYKER/SLAGLE BAND EXPANDED – “Routes”
Strikezone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar; Steve Slagle, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; John Clark, French horn; Billy Drewes, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet; Clark Gayton, trombone/tuba; Bill O’Connell, piano/Fender Rhodes; Gerald Cannon, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums.

The Steve Slagle composition, “City of Angels” opens this CD with a memorable melody line and great harmonics by the horn section. It was written in tribute to Los Angeles where Slagle grew up. Slagle and Stryker have composed every song on this CD, with the exception of one Mingus tune entitled, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors.” It’s a beautiful ballad that Slagle has embellished with lovely arrangements for their four horn expansion. This project, like the many others they have recorded over the decades, is full of expressive energy.

Perhaps, even more importantly, on this recording these two close friends and musical partners have written music that explores their geographical paths through life and the intrinsic, personal routes that music has mapped out for them. Stryker’s title tune, “Routes” gives him a platform to stretch-out on his guitar and he’s never sounded better. Slagle always brings the blues into his playing when he picks up his horn. Bill O’Connell, on piano, adds a new dimension and depth to the song and the group. “Ft. Green Scene” is a nice combination of funk and straight-ahead jazz, celebrating Slagle’s neighborhood in Brooklyn where he resided for eight years. In fact, this is where the initial collaborations with Stryker began. “Great Plains” recalls Stryker’s Midwestern roots. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a laid-back tempo, once again letting Slagle’s lovely horn arrangements support the melody with the same passion that Stryker pulls from the strings of his guitar. The last cut is “Lickety Split Lounge.” That was a bar in Harlem where Stryker went to audition for Jack McDuff’s band when he first moved to New York. As fate would have it, this is where he first met Steve Slagle who was already a part of McDuff’s ensemble. The rest is history.

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MATT KANE & THE KANSAS CITY GENERATIONS SEXTET – “Acknowledgement”
Independent Label

Matt Kane, drums; Ben Leifer, bass; Andrew Oullette, piano; Michael Shultz, alto saxophone; Steve Lambert, tenor saxophone; Hermon Mehari, trumpet.

On this compact disc, a suite of horns sings compositions by Bobby Watson, Ahmad Alaadeen and Pat Metheny, while the drums march and push them ahead like the hands of an impatient grandfather. Even before I looked at the CD credits, I knew the drummer was the star of this production. Matt Kane is a Kansas City transplant who spent several years in New York City and has recently returned home to his Midwestern roots in search of young musicians to light the fire under his creativity. Kane had the premise and desire to celebrate Kansas City icons. The percussive master quickly found just who he needed at the UMKC Conservatory of Music, his alma mater.

He explained, “The musicians in the band come from small towns around the Midwest. The choices (to celebrate) Ahmad Alaadeen and Bobby Watson were very obvious because they had been direct mentors to myself and the others in the band.”

Alaadeen was born in Kansas City on July 24, 1934 and remains a respected and legendary jazz saxophonist and revered mentor, even after his passing in 2010. Watson is another jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator, who was born nearby in Lawrence, KS, grew up in Bonner Springs and became a historic member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. After playing with a plethora of jazz icons, Watson accepted the position of Director of Jazz Studies at Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. Pat Metheny was born August 12, 1954 in Lee’s Summit, Mo, a suburb just southeast of Kansas City. He is a respected guitarist, arranger, recording artist and composer.

Kane wanted to record a project that had substance and meaning, not just another project of jazz standards. Consequently, he picked these three important musicians and composers who shared roots with himself and his bandmates. The result is a well-produced package of great compositions, properly arranged and creatively played in a very straight-ahead way. Although I enjoyed every composition on this compact disc, my favorite cuts are “Timeline (For Elvin)” by Metheny, “Jewel” composed by Watson, “And the Beauty of It All” by Alaadeen is beautiful and gives Andrew Oullette a melodic space to showcase his piano skills. “The Burning Sand” also by Alaadeen is exciting and Avant Garde, allowing all the members of this sextet to cut loose and stretch out.

“So, this album is a spotlight on what’s happening in KC now, our first CD viewing that through the lens of Metheny, Alaadeen and Watson,” Matt Kane shares his perspective.

Matt Kane’s percussive majesty crowns him king of this empirical sextet. As linear notes explain, “Acknowledgement” is recorded to epitomize the amazing talents of three Kansas City musical icons, as played by a group of their talented peers. Mission accomplished.

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