Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Blue Wisp Big Band: Tribute

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: Tribute

Unless you're from the Midwest, or are an avid big band fan, you've probably never heard of this group. 

The Blue Wisp Big Band is what's known as a "territory band," a unit whose members live and work in — or near — a particular city and seldom venture outside that area. Cincinnati, Ohio, is big enough to attract many touring artists and shows; this provides plenty of work for backup musicians. 

But until drummer John Von Ohlen came to town in 1980, nobody was playing jazz. 

Von Ohlen assembled a few "cats" (his word) and formed this big band, then talked the owners of the Blue Wisp Jazz Club into letting them play every Wednesday night. 

The ensemble is a "pure" jazz group: no singers and no show tunes, just musicians swinging, stretching and exploring. 

Today, 26 years later, that band still blows the roof off every Wednesday night. 

This album is called "Tribute" for several reasons. Marjean Wisby, one of the original club owners who operated the venue for more than 30 years, died in 2006. Additionally, 12 of the band's original 16 members remain active. 

When one thinks of jazz, New York and the West Coast get most of the attention — and credit — for the art form. That's misleading; during the original big band era, the Midwest delivered the primary core audience for this music. Almost every city of any size had ballrooms that operated on weekends, and often featured the famous bands that toured the country. 

Goodman, Dorsey, Krupa, Hampton, Kenton and many others all played regularly in Midwestern cities. 

I lived in Ohio during my college years, and played in several territory groups in the Columbus area; I can vouch for the quality of the local musicians. The excellence of the Blue Wisp Big Band doesn't surprise me at all, nor does its longevity. 

Sea Breeze obviously got smart years ago; this is the label's second album featuring these guys. 

Half the arrangements were written by jazz greats such as Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington and Freddie Hubbard. You'll also hear covers of a few gems ("Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Soon") and originals written by well-known jazz arrangers such as Frank Griffith. 

The band is polished, and the solos are excellent; my only complaint is with the quality of the recording, mixing and mastering. (Before reading the liner notes, I'd already decided that the drummer was the ensemble leader ... because the microphones were too close to him!) 

Granted, the fact that this album was recorded live explains much of the problem. A better effort with the electronics would have raised my rating by half a star, but — even so — it's a keeper.

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