Thursday, March 15, 2007

Doug MacDonald: Gentle Rain

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Gentle Rain

Doug MacDonald is not new to the world of jazz. 

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Honolulu, he moved to the West Coast in 1982 and became a fixture, with periodic forays to New York and Las Vegas. He has played in groups of every size, from trios to big bands. 

He has been a sideman with dozens of organizations (George Shearing, Buddy Rich, Bill Holman and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, to name a few); many famous vocalists; and some of the best guitarists in jazz (Joe Pass and Herb Ellis). MacDonald has been referred to as a "bop" guitarist, but his style really is more laid-back, mellow and swinging. 

The basic group performing on this release is a quartet: guitar, bass, piano and drums. Two different pianists were used: Ross Tompkins and Marty Harris. 

Five tracks feature a trio — guitar, piano and drums — and MacDonald plays solo guitar on "Gentle Rain." 

This is one of the best releases in the "casual enjoyment" genre I've heard in a long time. Eight tunes are familiar jazz standards that my generation grew up with, from "Once In A While" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" to "Picnic" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." The ballads are wonderful for close dancing, and the arrangement of "Picnic" is particularly moving. 

Even the more up-tempo tracks — like "Idaho" — are danceable. The arrangements are excellent, as are the ensemble and solo work. 

And everything swings, thanks to the quality of the rhythm section — Harvey Newmark on bass, Jack LeComte on drums — that perfectly complements either pianist and MacDonald's guitar. 

You won't grow tired of this album.

The Bill Holman Band: Live

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Live

Bill Holman and I were born within three months of each other, so he's had a lot to do with my love for jazz. 

Holman was born and schooled in California, took up the clarinet and tenor sax in high school, and was leading his own band while still a teenager. After serving in the U.S. Navy, where he studied engineering, he decided that he really wanted to write music for the big jazz bands that prevailed in the 1940s. 

He studied at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, and was a key contributor to the West Coast Jazz movement during the '50s, playing with bands led by Ike Carpenter, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, and writing arrangements for Charlie Barnet. Holman began his long association with Stan Kenton in 1952 and became his chief arranger, writing most of the band's library. 

Over the next 25 years, Holman played with or wrote arrangements for almost every big band in existence, including Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra. In his spare time, Holman wrote for vocalists such as Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, June Christy and Anita O'Day. 

He did the arranging for Natalie Cole's Grammy winning "Unforgettable" album, and received one of his Grammy Awards for his arrangement of "Take The 'A' Train" for Doc Severinsen's. 

The point: Even if you didn't know it, if you like jazz, you've been exposed to Holman most of your life. Thank goodness he has made some great recordings over the years: Great Big Band in the 1960s, The Bill Holman Band in the late '80s, A View From The Side and Brilliant Corners during the '90s ... and — the subject at hand —this release in 2005. 

Whatever Homan does, concerts or recording sessions, he has his pick of musicians. They stand in line just for a chance to play his arrangements, which create a symbiosis between baroque textures and modern jazz harmonics. 

Holman wrote all the arrangements on this CD. "Woodrow," done in memory of Woody Herman, works his "Blue Fame" theme song into a swinging melody. "A Day In The Life," another swinger, is a perfect example of how Holman combines styles. 

"Bary Me Not" salutes longtime associate Gerry Mulligan, while "Zoot 'n' Al" is in memory of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, two of the "four brothers" who played with Herman when Holman also was a member. 

The album's most interesting chart is "Donna Lee," one of the bop lines played by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who always did it at a blazing tempo. Holman's arrangement slows it down a bit, which permits the listener to realize just how complex and swinging this composition was. 

The remaining tracks, all originals by Holman, further reinforce his genius. 

Not to be missed.

Taylor/Fidyk Big Band: Live at Blues Alley

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Live at Blues Alley

You probably aren't familiar with either Mark Taylor or Steve Fidyk, but you'll want to be after listening to this wonderful release. 

Taylor is a composer/ arranger who got his start doing charts for the Stan Kenton orchestra; Fidyk is a percussionist who has played in many of the great jazz groups and in back-up bands for innumerable vocal artists. They met while both were members of the Army Blues, a well known military band. 

This CD, only their second release, was done live at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. 

The group is a standard big band: five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass and drums. All but one of the tracks were arranged by Taylor; Fidyk did the arrangement of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." 

The result: This band really swings. It's like a visit to the past, resurrecting memories of Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others of that genre. 

"Full Count" is typical of the up-tempo openers with which those bands would begin a concert; the second tune in the set, "Maiden Voyage," is a real burner that lets the audience know what to expect. "Bradley's Bop House," a groovy mid-tempo tune, demonstrates how a great rhythm section can drive a band and its featured trumpet and tenor sax soloists. 

"My One And Only Love" is the first of five old standards; this one's a great arrangement for dancers. The "close dancing" crowd will appreciate the samba treatment given "What'll I Do," which has beautiful trumpet and piano solos. 

As for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," I've never heard it played like this ... and I love it! 

I've also never heard a version of "Anthropology" played at a (relatively) slow tempo. This version will make you even more impressed with this great bop standard. 

Taylor was collaborating with drummer Louie Bellson when he composed "Brush Taps." It's reminiscent of Neal Hefti's "Cute," and demonstrates the groove created when a drummer uses brushes instead of sticks. 

"My Cherie Amour" is done as a jazz waltz: wonderful for both listening and dancing. Finally, the set closes with "The Gorillaman Blues," a real rocker in my favorite jazz format. The ensemble and solo work on this track are fantastic, and you won't be able to keep your feet still. 

This is a great group, and I look forward to future CDs.

Scott Burns: Passages

Origin Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Passages

Scott Burns was born and raised in Ohio's Dayton/Cincinnati area. While still in school, he decided that music, jazz and the tenor sax would be major elements in his life. 

A chance to sit in during a 1996 concert tour by one of Clark Terry's bands — and encouragement he received at the time — were instrumental in Burns' decision to move to Chicago, where opportunities abounded. While attending DePaul University to expand his musical education, he worked with jazz groups and formed his own quartet. 

He received a Downbeat award in 1999, and by 2002 was playing with Connick's big band. Eventually, though, Burns returned to his own quartet. 

This is a standard group, with Burns on tenor sax, Ron Perrillo on piano, Dennis Carroll on bass, and George Fludas on drums/percussion. Burns composed all the tunes on this CD. Two of them, "Black Orchid" and "Waiting," are pretty ballads: perfect for slow dancing with a significant other. 

The rest of the tunes are mid- to up-tempo compositions, better suited for listening than dancing. 

A group that works in and around one area — Chicago, in this case — is known as a "territory" band. They're the bread and butter of the musical world and, because they aren't well known outside their own areas, most of the musicians have two jobs. The daytime jobs buy the groceries, pay the rent and support the family. 

At night, they turn into musicians to augment their basic income, get their kicks and (hopefully!) make their way up the musical ladder of success ... which then would allow them to quit those humdrum day jobs. 

This quartet is good: better than most living this kind of life. As you'd expect, the solo work is done primarily by Burns and Perrillo; both are excellent. The bassist and drummer are more than adequate. 

But, as is the case with most small combos, it's hard to prevent boredom from creeping in unless the group includes a rising superstar. That isn't the case yet, but these guys play pleasurable jazz: great background music while you're reading or hosting a gathering of friends.

Tony DeSare: Want You

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Want You

I almost didn't review this CD; it's borderline jazz, more like what you'd hear in a lounge than in a club or concert. 

But since I've covered at least half a dozen female singers in recent months, I must be equally fair to this new male vocalist. 

DeSare is well known in the New York area, where he attended college and formed his first trio. He's a vocalist who plays more than adequate piano, and he sounds a lot like Harry Connick Jr. — without the New Orleans accent — and strongly resembles John F. Kennedy Jr. 

That combination guarantees a significant female fan base for starters, and DeSare's excellent performance level also should bring the guys on board. 

DeSare's songwriting abilities, though, will ensure his breakthrough to the upper echelon. He wrote six of the tunes on this album, five teamed with bassist Mike Lee. The biggie he'll ride into fame is "If I Had Drew," from the movie "My Date With Drew." 

DeSare augmented his normal trio for this recording, adding Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), John Swana (trumpet), Bob Howell (tenor sax), Vic Stevens and Brian Czach (drums) and Tedd Firth (piano). Lee plays bass on every track. 

All the arrangement are tastefully done, and the few featured solos are quite good. DeSare uses the same gimmick that pianist Paul Smith has become famous for: Smith concludes every live set with a short, fast version of the Looney Tunes theme, while DeSare does the same with the tune "Five Foot Two," delivering various styles at a blazing tempo.