Friday, March 7, 2014

Adam Rongo: Tell Your Story

D Clef Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Tell Your Story

Saxophonist/composer Adam Rongo heads up a wonderfully swinging unit here: a group that brings back fond memories of the best bands that graced us when jazz truly was king. The basic unit is a sax/trombone/piano/bass/drum quintet, but eight guest artists are sprinkled throughout this album’s 11 track menu; as a result, the average combo size is closer to a septet. 

None of these players is well known ... yet. They’re mostly in their 20s and 30s and, although still under the radar at the moment, are well on the way to future stardom.

The core quintet features Rongo (sax), Michael Dease (trombone), Emmet Cohen (piano), Rodney Whitaker (bass) and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums). Guitarist Randy Napoleon, vibraphonist Behn Gillece and baritone saxman Tony Lustig expand the instrumentalists; additionally, Anthony Stanco (trumpet), Tim Mayer (tenor sax), Miki Hayama (piano) and Evan Sherman (drums) sit in on some tracks. 

Three old standards — “Stardust,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Your Mine, You” — are given lovely, up-to-date treatments. The rest of the tunes, written by members of the band and Johnny Green, Johnny Griffin and Jimmy Heath, are up-tempo swingers that bring the party to life. My favorite is a roaring rendition of Griffin’s “Fifty-Six”; if it doesn’t get you movin’ and groovin’, nothing will. 

This is the kind of stuff that used to move the audience off the dance floor, to gather around the band!

Great musicians and great arrangements: a wonderful release.

Dave Slonaker Big Band: Intrada

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Intrada

Oh, how I miss the big bands! 

And, as a result, how grateful I am for releases such as this one from Dave Slonaker, who feel the same emptiness, and occasionally fill it with great “temporary” groups. 

Unless you’re part of the musical world, Slonaker probably isn’t on your jazz scope. But if you’re a movie or television fan, you’ve been exposed to him many times during the past 20 years. He has arranged or orchestrated the music for dozens of films and TV shows. A partial list includes Oz, the Great and Powerful, Frankenweenie, Little Fockers, Men in Black 3, Milk, Night at the Museum, Charlotte’s Web, The Legend of Zorro, Jag and many, many more. We therefore can take for granted that his skills are far better than his lack of a “name” might suggest.

This big band is the newest of his endeavors, and Intrada is the group’s debut release. It’s a truly large unit: five woodwinds, five trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass and drums. Slonaker arranged all the tunes and directed this stellar group.

This is the smoothest orchestra that I’ve heard in years. The arrangements are superb; the solo work, distributed among the cadre of artists, is sensational. There’s nothing not to like, but the highlight arrangement is a visit to the old standard, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” It’s a wonderful melody, and Slonaker’s arrangement brings it back to life in an intriguing way.

I hope to hear a lot more from these artists.

Tom Kennedy: Just Play

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Just Play

The more albums I review, the more I become convinced that the prime age for jazz artists begins in their 50s and 60s. The all-star group fronted for this album by bassist Tom Kennedy is proof positive. Kennedy, drummer Dave Weckl, pianist Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Tim Hagans and trombonist John Allred are in their 50s; tenor saxmen Steve Wirts and George Garzone, and guitarists Mike Stern and Lee Ritenour, are in their 60s. These artists aren’t old; they’re at the top of their craft!

Further, several are masters on their instruments. Weckl is one of the best big-band drummers I’ve ever heard; he reads arrangements impeccably, catches every inflection and emphasis, and drives the entire group marvelously, without getting in the way of the soloists. That said, his own solos always are works of art. Kennedy is equally talented on the bass; he began studying on the upright instrument, then added electric models to his arsenal. His ability to produce more complex chords and blazing speeds on electric basses carried over to the uprights, his instrument of choice on this album. His dexterity on solo passages is breathtaking.

Rosnes has been a first-call jazz artist for years, but remains relatively unknown to the public, and I don’t know why. Perhaps a partial explanation lies in her Canadian heritage, and the fact that she began her musical career in the classical genre. She was turned onto jazz by a high school teacher. Even so, she was performing classical concerts in the early 1980s, and was awarded a Canada Council of the Arts grant before moving to New York City to further her studies. After joining Joe Henderson’s quartet in ’86, she turned to jazz with a vengeance. She has played with the jazz Who’s Who, and has an extensive discography in our favorite genre. I’ve become a huge fan; she’s a great straight-ahead artist.

Every member of this group is excellent, and the album title perfectly describes its contents. This is pure, swinging, exciting music, and the artists obviously are having a ball.

The menu includes compositions that have become key elements of the
jazz dictionary: Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” Freddie Hubbard’sCeora,” Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” and several others

You’ll love this release!