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Holmes – Jeff Benedict Big Big Band

Jeff Benedict Big Big Band
Jeff Benedict Big Big Band

By DAVE GREGG

Jeff Benedict, a consummate musician in both the jazz and classical worlds,  had always wanted to do his own big band jazz album. With a little help from his friends — who coincidentally were all superb musicians — he assembled an ensemble that’s equipollent with some of the best big bands in the country. Thus, the Jeff Benedict Big Big Band was born.

You’ll find no prolonged bouts of artistic navel gazing on this cd. This is music that’s meant to entertain. The soloists are impressive throughout and they improvise with a searing inventiveness. The band, a literal paragon of swing, is a powerhouse of top players that perform with precision and authority. But don’t let that intimidate you. Listening to this band is a true pleasure.

With selections from a diverse repertoire that’s equally facile with standards from the American songbook to pop hits by Sting, you could say that the Jeff Benedict Big Big Band offers a little something for everyone here.

The recording starts off with Come On In, a minor blues composed and arranged by David Caffey, a longtime jazz educator and arranger. The work plays around with a pesky three-note motif that’s developed throughout the piece, almost obsessively at times, till the rousing conclusion. The chart swings hard and the band makes the unequivocal argument that this is an ensemble worthy of your attention. Jeff Benedict, a fluent improviser and accomplished lead alto player, takes the first solo. Charlie Richard follows, offering his own jazz musings on the baritone sax.

Bitter Jug is a sprightly reworking of The Jitterbug Waltz, arranged by trombonist Paul McKee, of Woody Herman fame. A straight-ahead swinger, the chart features a lively sax soli, performed with spunk and polish by a superb saxophone section that phrases so well together you might think they share the same lung. Matt Harris takes the first solo, contributing his bop-inspired moxie to the piano. He’s followed by McKee, a born lyricist on the trombone that dazzles with his slide-of-hand, and who’s the heir-apparent to former slide masters like Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino.

Seven Days, the iconic hit by Sting in 5/4 time (an unusual meter for pop songs), gets the jazz treatment here in an arrangement by Benedict. The arrangement itself doesn’t break new ground, however, almost coming across as a transcription of the original — albeit spiced with jazz voicings and the instrumental colors of the big band. The concept works, though, and the solos  by Dave Askren on guitar and Jeff Ellwood on tenor offer probing ruminations on the material.

Holmes, an original by Benedict and dedicated to his late father,  is a fun and entertaining romp, a jaunty derivative of the blues — with attitude — that turns the familiar twelve-bar progression on its head. Starting with a New Orleans second-line style, the bass line suddenly veers unexpectedly to the tritone and you discover that you’re no longer in Kansas anymore — at least harmonically speaking — and if you are, Stravinsky has moved in next door as your new neighbor.  The work highlights Jeff Benedict’s musical sense of humor, amply evident throughout the entire recording. Solo turns are taken by Benedict on alto, Charlie Richard on bari, Tom Tallman on trumpet, and Paul McKee on trombone — all contributing their own blues-drenched flights of imagination.

Easy Living, a standard from the American songbook, features Benedict on alto, in an arrangement of his that makes use of a wide dynamic range. Of special note, listen for the sassy bass trombone work of Gerry Amoury and the impassioned wail of the sax section during the bridge. Benedict’s playing runs an emotional scale throughout that’s both sensitive and torchy, where his tender exchanges on alto are often contrasted moments later by a stunning wall of sound from the ensemble. The stirring climax of his solo is reached during a progression of accented quarter notes from the band, gradually increasing in intensity as he reaches a fever pitch of improvisational fury, an effect reminiscent of Bob Brookmeyer’s brilliant arrangement of Skylark. Paul McKee occasionally alternates with the melody on trombone.

Jaco, a composition by the great Pat Metheny,  begins with an intricate rhythmic figure from the saxes that at first hearing sounds like one of his multi-meter excursions, but it’s really just 4/4 time. Arranged by Benedict, Jeff continues the work started by Bob Curnow, who arranged a number of Metheny’s songs for big band. Ken Foerch leads off with a funky tenor solo and Charlie Richard sculpts his solo on baritone sax with a warm and woody tone, as if his horn had been carved from the trunk of a great tree. Benedict closes out with a soulful romp on the soprano sax.

Young and Fine is a composition written by Joe Zawinul for the fusion group, Weather Report. Another arrangement by Benedict, the sheer exuberance of the song, practically gushing with its own life force, almost overrides further treatment by an arranger, but Benedict adapts the work well to a larger ensemble. The latin groove  adds an effusive quality to Zawinul’s sunny classic that will make you smile from ear to ear. Benedict  and Matt Harris, on alto and piano , add further illumination with tandem solos.

Benedict’s rendition of Caravan, the Duke Ellington favorite, is a high-octane ride that drives relentlessly forward with a take-no-prisoners attitude that builds to an exciting climax. Jeff Ellwood, a player that defies cliché as if his life depended on it, seems relentlessly resourceful at finding new ways to grab the shirt collars of his listeners. In his solo on Caravan, after depleting his talent for conjuring wildly inventive melodic lines, he explodes in the altissimo with the guttural evocation of a primal scream, forging astonishingly new tonal possibilities from that smoldering smithy he calls a tenor saxophone.

Delta City Blues, composed and recorded by tenor sax legend Michael Brecker, is again arranged by Benedict. Brecker originally played the punchy, angular lines in the work with a spirit that reflected the unstoppable march of modernism — you could almost envision the steel girders of skyscrapers dramatically jutting into the air with each rhythmic stride. Oddly enough, though, Benedict’s interpretation somewhat neuters that modernity by removing the sharp corners and orchestrating the formerly jagged melodic strands into cute pirouettes that use the tonal colors of a saxophone quartet, the soprano daintily riding on top. It’s a startling juxtaposition if you’re comparing the two recordings in your mind as you listen. There’s no fault in the interpretation, as it is humorous and well-played by the ensemble — although you may justifiably find yourself asking at some point, is this a Michael Brecker piece or an etude by Marcel Mule? The tenor sax solo by Jeff Ellwood, a model of what modern jazz playing is all about these days, lends the right amount of incandescence to the work, sometimes screaming from the rooftops with exciting swerves into the upper register, but always with an unwavering hipness in his lines that’s rarely heard by lesser players.

Castle Creek Shuffle is another original by Benedict. A clever twist on jazz anthems like Killer Joe, this rollicking shuffle, irrepressibly upbeat and bouncy, feels good from start to finish, and features solo turns from Benedict on alto, Dave Askren on guitar, and Paul McKee on trombone. Benedict’s playing  sometimes echoes the saucy antics of former altoists like Dick Spencer, sporting ascending chromatic trills in the upper register; and Paul McKee lends his usual authoritative voice to the proceedings with a solo that’s hip, lyrical and unabashedly swinging. The chart ends on an anti-climatic Thad Jones-like flourish, a fitting contrast to all that fun.

Naima, the evergreen classic by John Coltrane, is a memorable Paul McKee arrangement that wraps the former ballad in a sweeping latin groove. The dense voicings in the ensemble hint at Gil Evans influences and create gorgeous harmonic textures, like a gentle breeze stirring delicate strands of hair across the face of a beautiful woman. Jeff Jarvis infuses the work with the sumptuous beauty of his trumpet work, while guitarist Dave Askren lends his own tasteful renderings, and Paul Romaine plays impeccably throughout the work on the drums. With a final chordal ascent from the ensemble, the arrangement draws to a close, a fitting and lovely conclusion to the recording.  sax-icon


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Track Listing for Jeff Benedict Big Big Band 

Come On In (6:29)
Bitter Jug (5:47)
Seven Days (6:10)
Holmes (5:58)
Easy Living (6:14)
Jaco (5:49)
Young and Fine (5:46)
Caravan (5:47)
Delta City Blues (8:06)
Castle Creek Shuffle (7:26)
Naima (6:44)

Musicians

Saxophones: Jeff Benedict, Adrian Williams, Jeff Ellwood, Ken Foerch, Charlie Richard

Trumpets: Steve Hawk (Lead), Jeff Jarvis, Tom Tallman, Frank Rico

Trombones: Paul McKee (Lead), Jacques Voyemant, Otto Granillo, Gerry Amoury (Bass)

Guitar: Dave Askren

Piano: Matt Harris

Bass: Tim Emmons

Drums: Paul Romaine

Producer: Jeff Benedict

Conductor: David Caffey

Engineer: Jim Linahon

Booth Supervisor: Kevin Mayse

Studio Assistant: Jeff Tower

Time Within Itself – Michael Waldrop Big Band

Michael Waldrop Big Band
Michael Waldrop Big Band

By DAVE GREGG

Time Within Itself, Michael Waldrop’s first big band CD, is a joyous, rip-roaring ride that charts a rollicking course through diverse musical styles, ranging from jazz fusion to the very best of big band jazz.

At the helm on drums, Waldrop is the indomitable anchor of the ensemble, a master of kinetic energy who plays both authoritatively and with a rare symmetrical beauty. Creating a rhythmic force that is high-octane yet beautifully measured is a tall order for any drummer, but Waldrop miraculously sustains this virtuosic energy throughout the entire recording. A talented composer, as well, he wrote or co-wrote six of the eight tunes on the project, and beautifully plays the vibraphone on three of the tracks.

Jack Cooper, a gifted musician and composer in his own right, arranged the music on this project, co-writing two of the tracks with Waldrop and a couple originals of his own. His own critically acclaimed CD, Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra, now available on Planet Arts, was released last year. Cooper’s dazzling arrangements on this session, brimming with originality and inventiveness, unquestionably establishes him as a writer of big band jazz destined to make a mark.

In El Vino, the first track on the CD, Waldrop pays tribute to the great jazz drummer, Elvin Jones. Echoes of early Coltrane permeate this medium groove, an extended blues form that revives the hard bop style once celebrated in the Blue Note recordings from the 60s. The tenor sax soloist, Larry Panella, who earlier in his career performed with Woody Herman and The Phil Collins Band, almost sets the studio on fire with his scorching tone, torrid runs, and blazing vaults into the altissimo.

Tunnell Vision, a standout on the session by its sheer energy alone, features the impassioned electric guitar and wordless vocals of Jimi Tunnell, former member of the group, Steps Ahead.  When Tunnell’s epic incantations roar in your ears for the first time, bigger than life and almost operatic in intensity, you immediately realize this is not your typical big band recording. Tunnell Vision is so infused with infectious energy that at some point the music transcends the boundaries of structure and form and becomes nothing but pure energy. Cooper’s electrifying arrangement helps stem the frenetic demands of this fusion tune, adding sock and sizzle to the ensemble when needed, with the proceedings relentlessly driven home by the transcendent drum work of Michael Waldrop.

In Time Within Itself, the title cut, an elegant and diaphanous waltz that alludes to the best of Bill Evans, the music seems to glide along serene waters on a summer afternoon. The breezy, easy-going quality of the piece never ceases to delight, and the immaculate piano artistry of Steve Snyder just adds to the sunny character of this affable work. The alto sax solo, light and winsome, comes from the tasteful musings of Will Campbell, who leads the saxes in this session. Composed by Waldrop, the tune has the makings of a future jazz standard and will probably be widely recorded by other musicians. In the ingenious ways that have become a hallmark of his writing, Cooper’s arrangement exquisitely builds on the melodic material, snatching beautiful fragments from the song as if he’s catching butterflies in a net.

Munich Musings, a samba-like, straight eighth note groove with its lilting melody and yearning chord progression, unfolds amidst jagged rhythmic figures that intermittently disrupt the flowing line like modern skyscrapers translated into sound — but all to good effect. The invigorating percussion of Jose Rossy, of Weather Report fame, is on full display here, and trombonist Greg Waits and Mike Steinel on trumpet both craft memorable solos.

Inner Truth highlights the warm vibraphone playing of Waldrop, in a lovely slower piece that also features sensitive turns by Larry Panella on flute and Mike Steinel on flugelhorn. Cooper’s deceptively simple arrangement enchants with a lushly voiced introduction by the ensemble, as soft and delicate as the skin of a newborn. Written by Waldrop, this charming work offers a gentle reprieve before the coming storm of the remaining tracks ahead.

In Vistas, another effusive outpouring that encapsulates the best of fusion and contemporary jazz, Jimi Tunnell returns to continue his soulful dialogue. Composed by Jack Cooper, this charismatic work begins with a sprightly a cappella introduction by the ensemble, followed by the spirited main theme played by Tunnell that’s doubled an octave above by the ethereal vocal stylings of Susan Dudley. Larry Panella plays the commanding tenor sax solo that leads to the final climatic moments. A work reminiscent of Weather Report or The Brecker Brothers, Vistas is one of Cooper’s most emotionally expansive outings, with the ecstatic ascending line of the ending ultimately reaching to heights unknown. Some purists may find the forays into jazz fusion objectionable, but to his credit, Cooper brings his uncompromising standards to all styles of music, creating sophisticated compositions that are both intellectually and emotionally sound — a criteria for all great music.

The intriguing Her Moon Rises East, another composition by Cooper that features Tunnell, begins with a rhythmic figure reminiscent of Golson’s Blues March, before segueing into the more contemporary material in three-quarter time. At first written for a failed ballet, the work has a through-composed feel, allowing for evocative passages in the ensemble writing by Cooper that explores textures and colors not often associated with the big band.

Twisted Barb, a straightforward uptempo swing tune written to feature the drum work of Waldrop, concludes the recording. Cooper’s inventiveness with the linear line comes to the forefront here, as he weaves a brilliant mosaic of contrapuntal passages like a crazy quilter that’s traded in his sewing needles for an armful of musical scales. Later, in a series of solo passages between the drums and the band, Waldrop demonstrates true finesse, with masterful playing that is muscular and powerful yet capable of subtle touches that suggest soft drops of rain pelting panes of glass. In short, the incredible artistry of Waldrop’s performance — on this track and throughout the rest of the CD — is nothing short of remarkable.

Remarkable is also a fitting summation for the creative collaboration between Michael Waldrop and Jack Cooper, whose formidable talents breathed life into the music on this project. With the expiration date on big band recordings growing closer — according to some naysayers — Waldrop’s Time Within Itself offers a welcome extension, reinvigorating the genre with a unique juxtaposition of musical styles that blends the best of the present with the best of the past. In the end, though, the simple joy of creating remarkable music overrides everything else, and that is what you find in abundance on this recording — remarkable music.  sax-icon

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Track Listing:

  1. El Vino
  2. Tunnell Vision
  3. Time Within Itself
  4. Munich Musings
  5. Inner Truth
  6. Vistas
  7. Her Moon Rises East
  8. Twisted Barb

Musicians:

Saxophones
Will Campbell (Lead) – alto, soprano, clarinet, flute
Tim Ishii – alto, clarinet, flute
Larry Panella – tenor, soprano, clarinet, flute
Chris McGuire – tenor, clarinet
Paul Baker – baritone, bass clarinet

Trumpets
Keith Jourdan (Lead)
Dave Spencer
Larry Spencer
Mike Steinel

Trombones
Anthony Williams (Lead)
Tony Baker
Greg Waits
John Wasson – bass trombone

Rhythm
Chris Derose-Chiffolo – guitar (1,3,4,5,8)
Carl Hillman – bass
Steve Snyder – piano
Michael Waldrop – drums, vibraphone

Additional Musicians
Jose Rossy – percussion (2,4,5,6,7)
Chad McLoughlin – additional guitar (3)
Sandra Dudley – vocals (6,7)

Guest Soloist
Jimi Tunnell (electric guitar)

Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra

Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra
Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra

I always suspected that Charles Ives had the makings of a great jazz composer. Now Jack Cooper has shown just how jazzy Ives can get. This is a fun, exciting recording and one of the most creative big band projects of the year.”

— Ted Gioia,  author of The History of Jazz

By DAVE GREGG

Every so often one of those self-appointed apostles of cultural cynicism will exploit their place on a national journal to reignite the tired yet familiar debate — that jazz is dead. The house of jazz, they’ll rant, is a dilapidated relic with crumbling foundations, shuttered windows, and yellowed newspapers strewn across dust-laden floors. A lamentable example, recently published in the normally hallowed pages of The New Yorker, featured a humorless parody of jazz legend, Sonny Rollins.

While these flagrant floggings of America’s greatest art form are predictable grumblings from today’s attention-deficit-driven society, they are easily countered by the continued release of new and seminal jazz recordings each year.

One such recording is —Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra— a new release of eight stunning works for big band, beautifully arranged by Jack Cooper, a much sought-after composer and arranger in the jazz world.

In a recording that comprises fifty-five minutes of compelling American music, Cooper adds the full-throated roar of the big band to the strange yet captivating sounds of the modernist composer, Charles Ives. The engaging contrast of styles evokes images of the dark, smokey confines of the jazz club with the mist-shrouded banks of Ives’ fabled Housatonic, in eight aptly drawn musical portraits of Americana.

Cooper’s eminence looms large in these ingenious transformations of Ives’ songs, a unique coalescence of musical styles that never feel forced together. Credit Cooper’s creative alchemy here if you conclude after hearing the recording that Ives surely cut his compositional teeth in the jazz haunted speakeasies of Manhattan’s 52nd street.

Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra — The Music

jack cooper - mists: charles ives
Jack Cooper recording Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra

In Mists, the title track, Cooper transforms Ives’ elegiac setting of ‘gray skies’ and haunting vistas of ‘hill and dale’ into an uptempo jaunt through the ambiguous terrain of the whole-tone scale, with an obvious nod to Dee Barton, of Stan Kenton fame. In an intensely swinging diatribe, Cooper pounds relentless successions of altered dominant seventh chords, powerfully punctuated by exciting shouts from the brass and fiery solos played by Terell Stafford, Ivan Renta, and Luis Bonilla.

Terell Stafford, a guest soloist featured on the title track and the concluding cut, The Cage, joins an impressive roster of soloists on the album, many of them members of the esteemed Village Vanguard Orchestra. With a charismatic sound and an impeccable sense of swing, Stafford ignites the music with fingers of lightning that scorch the air. His jazz is lyrical, hard-driving, and red-hot.

In The Last Reader, Cooper adopts one of Ives’ favorite traditions: pitting two ensembles in musical opposition. The dense cluster of harmonies lends an ethereal effect akin to light scattered in swirls of mist — an undeniable Ivesian touch. Following the airy dissonance of the introduction, Cooper dresses the main theme in a more contemporary setting, with tenor and guitar in fusion-flavored unison, succeeded by heartfelt solos played by Alex Wintz and Jim Seeley. The work culminates in an extended climax, orchestrated with a breathtaking surge of emotion from the ensemble that unveils Jack’s most gorgeous writing.

At The River, a laid-back medium swing, brims with inventiveness. Cooper ingeniously uses simple background figures behind the familiar hymn like tonal bits of clay that mold and develop the work into something well beyond the original intentions of the church-goer — but to great effect for the jazz listener. Luis Bonilla and Chris Karlic are featured on the trombone and baritone sax.

The Cage, the final selection among the eight arrangements, is Cooper’s magnum opus. Bolstered by impassioned solos by Billy Drews, Peter Brainin, and Terell Stafford, this arresting work — on the surface at least — is just a 24 measure minor blues. Never satisfied with the banal, however, Cooper elevates the piece into a pinnacle of artistic expression, crafting a complex knit of musical passages that range from the merely atmospheric to intricate contrapuntal lines that ingeniously contrast and intertwine in a tour de force of wildly inventive jazz composition.

Special mention must also go to the piano prowess of Randy Ingram, the rhythmic fervor of Vince Cherico, and the impressive soloists not mentioned earlier: Scott Wendholt, Chris Karlic, John Mosca, Rey David Alejandre, and Andrew Halchak.

On final analysis, Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra showcases a marvelous band, stellar soloists, and a level of arranging rich with heritage yet honed with an ear toward things to come. Cultural prophets may continue to proclaim that jazz is dead, that the tradition has gone stale , that the music isn’t cool anymore (as one reporter blithely stated)but Jack Cooper settles that argument, brilliantly and decisively, with this important new recording.   sax-icon

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For a more in-depth analysis of Jack’s work with Ives, read Scott Healy’s jazz composition blog.


 

Track listing for Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra:

  1. Mists
  2. The Last Reader
  3. The Children’s Hour
  4. Tom Sails Away
  5. The Camp Meeting
  6. Watchman!
  7. At The River
  8. The Cage

Musicians:

Saxophones
Alto – Billy Drews (Lead)
Alto – Andrew Halchak
Tenor – Ivan Renta
Tenor – Peter Brainin
Baritone – Chris Karlic

Trumpets
Nick Marchionne (Lead)
John Walsh
Jim Seeley
Scott Wendholt

Guest Soloist
Terell Stafford (trumpet)

Trombones
John Mosca (Lead)
Luis Bonilla
Rey David Alejandre
Frank Cohen (bass , all except #3)
Douglas Purviance (bass #3, #8)

Rhythm
Piano – Randy Ingram
Guitar – Alex Wintz
Bass – Andy McKee
Drums & Percussion – Vince Cherico