Thursday, April 5, 2007

Full Spectrum Jazz Big Band: Pursuits

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Pursuits

Ten years ago, a group of Silicon Valley professionals — who also happened to be part-time musicians — formed a big band for their after-hours enjoyment. 

The operative word here is big, the group consisting of four trumpets/flugelhorns, five trombones, five woodwinds, a full rhythm section (piano, drums, bass and guitar) and a vocalist. Their intent, to cover a wide range of musical styles and genres, is illustrated in this release. 

Many of tracks are familiar jazz standards: "Au Privave" and "Night in Tunisia," by Dizzy Gillespie; "Willowcrest," by Bob Florence; "Raggy Waltz," by Dave Brubeck; "Almost Like Being in Love," by Lerner and Loewe; "The Way You Look Tonight," by Jerome Kern; and a group of Latin tunes. 

As you might expect, Valley professionals who deal with detailed electronics approach their after-hours fun with the same precision. The band is beautifully rehearsed, and — considering that these are not professional musicians — the solo work is more than adequate. Unfortunately, the recording, mixing and mastering are quite poor. The band sounds as if the instruments were muffled by cheesecloth, and the entire rhythm section is missing in action. 

The drummer's cymbals are inaudible, and the drums themselves sound more like practice pads than the instruments. Only the electronic bass is audible, and — except for during solos — the piano remains unheard. 

As a result, no emotion is evident, and the group doesn't really swing. And while the vocalist is pleasant enough, there's too much of him and not enough of the band. 

Since this endeavor is intended to provide its participants with "fun" time, we have to assume that they're satisfied with the results. With respect to marketing the band, however, they won't be ready for prime time until they fix the recording and engineering problems.

They really only deserve an E for effort.

The MHCC Jazz Band & Combo: My Foolish Heart

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: My Foolish Heart

MHCC stands for Mount Hood Community College, near Portland, Ore. It's a renown institution, and young musicians flock to it, to expand their jazz education. MHCC releases a CD each year, and this one showcases the Class of '06. 

This is a really big band, with 20 members (although not everyone is involved in every track). The band has five musicians in the reed section; five trumpets/flugelhorns; four trombones; and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, guitar and drums. The musicians also perform as a "Winter Green" sextet, comprising members of the basic orchestra. 

As in the past, the band is beautifully rehearsed, the arrangements are excellent, and the ensemble work is outstanding. Because of the musicians' limited experience, however, the solos aren't quite up to the standards of the group as a whole. 

More to my taste, the band doesn't really swing ... as does the Western Michigan University Jazz Orchestra, for example. 

Be that as it may, this CD certainly is worth your time and money. 

Only one of the tunes is a standard: the title song, "My Foolish Heart." This arrangement by Chuck Owens is done at a "close dancing" tempo, with an excellent tenor sax solo by Sam Solano. It's the album's most moving track. 

A couple of tunes are written by name musicians who often contribute arrangements to MHCC, and they're very good. Sammy Nestico's "88 Basie Street," featuring Andrew Washington on piano, really grooves; Matt Harris' "MAS Production" highlights an excellent rhythm section. 

It's wonderful to know that another generation of youngsters is carrying on the jazz tradition. Sea Breeze is to be congratulated for its continuing interest and involvement with the MHCC groups. 

And you should hop on their band wagon, as well.

Liam Sillery and the David Sills Quartet: On the Fly

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: On the Fly

Trumpeter Liam Sillery is another of today's musicians who has developed his skills during an extensive college educational program. Born in New Jersey, he attended the University of South Florida and graduated in 1992. 

He returned to New Jersey and, during the next 10 years, played with a number of jazz groups in the New York area. In 2002, he entered the Manhattan School of Music, graduating in 2004. During that period he met David Sills, a gifted tenor sax player with his own quartet. 

Sillery joined the group — which consisted of Sills, Joe Bagg (organ), Larry Koonse (guitar) and Tim Pleasant (drums) — for this release. Sillery plays both trumpet and flugelhorn. 

All but one of the tracks are originals written and arranged by either Sillery or Sills; the result is a pleasant, moderately swinging session. The musicians are excellent, the ensemble work is clean, and the solos are more than adequate. 

But the use of an organ has a significant effect on the group's jazz "feel." Bagg is as good as any organist playing today, but because it's not possible to play that instrument "crisply" (compared to a piano), all the arrangements are a little too laid-back for my taste. Koonse does his best to raise the excitement level, but even he isn't capable of making this group really swing. 

"Down the Line" gives an indication of what might have been, but it's the only track that kept my full attention. It's frustrating ... I know these guys are capable of better.

Trio East: Best Bets

Origin Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Best Bets

Back in the days of the big bands, most musicians barely finished high school before they began to play professionally. As time passed and those bands disappeared, many musicians retired or simply disappeared. 

Some of the best found jobs with studio bands that supported the movie and TV industries, and a relatively few found small groups that continued to perform in jazz clubs and lounges. I can't think of any who went back to school, although some did become teachers. 

Things have changed. 

Many of today's jazz-bent musicians enter colleges immediately after high school, and obtain degrees in their chosen field. Some are good enough to be offered teaching jobs at these colleges; many of those individuals form — or join — jazz groups and play professionally in their spare time. 

Such is the case with the members of Trio East: All are graduates and teachers at New Jersey's Eastman School of Music. Trumpeter Clay Jenkins, the group elder, did play with a number of the great bands — Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie — before going back to school, and he continues to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra. 

The other two (younger) members of this trio, bassist Jeff Campbell and drummer Rich Thompson, also have played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall and Marian McPartland. 

All three are excellent musicians who, by virtue of their close association at Eastman, think and play as one. 

When listening to this group, you'll immediately realize that advanced learning has had a considerable impact on their jazz style. Five of these nine tracks are originals written by one of the trio members; the remaining tunes are standards (Ellington's "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart," John Abercrombie's "Sweet Sixteen," Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me A River" and John Coltrane's "Bass Blues"). 

The melodies and tempos of the latter are recognizable and danceable. Such is not the case with the originals; they're much more modern, with tempo changes, simultaneous — and different — melodic lines, and dissonances that may turn some listeners off. 

The excellence of these musicians is unquestionable, but unless you enjoy advanced jazz, this release may not be for you.

Phil Woods and the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra: Unheard Herd

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Unheard Herd

Those who love jazz are aware of the contributions by Woody Herman and his big bands. 

In his early years, his was "The Band That Played The Blues," but he didn't become big-time until forming his first "Herd" in the mid-1940s. The Herd musicians became living legends: Flip Phillips (tenor sax), Bill Harris (trombone), Jimmy Rowels (piano), Shorty Rogers (trumpet), Dave Tough (drums), arrangers Ralph Burns and Neil Hefti, brothers Pete and Conti Candoli, and the fantastic "Four Brothers" sax section of Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff. 

Woody's second Herd produced far fewer recordings than either the first or subsequent groups. This LA Jazz Orchestra CD was conceived by Jazzed Media owner Graham Carter who, with the help of Phil Woods (sax) and Ron Stout (trumpet) — two alumni of the Herds — used actual arrangements of the second herd for this session. 

When one considers that these charts were written more than half a century ago, it becomes clear that Woody was quite far ahead of the rest of the big band world. 

The slightly diminished rating here results primarily from the way these arrangements have aged. Jazz continues to advance; the Herds of the 1970s and '80s were even more swinging than the initial groups, and those albums would earn a five-star rating even today. 

That said, this CD hasn't received the attention it deserves since being recorded in May 2004, and I'm trying to correct that. 

All the tracks are familiar swingers. "Keen and Peachy," an arrangement by Shorty Rogers of the "Fine and Dandy" melodic line, is a bop standard. "The Great Lie," an Andy Gibbson/Cab Calloway tune, dates back to 1949 but wasn't released until some 20 years later. "Man, Don't Be Ridiculous" was another 1949 chart written for Serge Chaloff, but was used primarily as an "air-check" rather than part of the band's "book." 

"Yardbird Suite," written for Woody by Gerry Mulligan, never was recorded by him. "My Old Flame," the only ballad on this release, usually was done by Herman as a solo; Woods does it here as a tribute. "We The People Bop" was the Herd's contribution to the scat vocal mode that was so familiar to bop. 

The closing track, "Boomsie," is a blues in F arrangement by Rogers; it later became known as "That's Right," and was done by the band after it got tired of playing "Caldonia." 

Those who remember Woody will love this release. I certainly do!