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 slightly under tempo 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.
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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)
Easy Living (6:14)
Young and Fine (5:46)
Delta City Blues (8:06)
Castle Creek Shuffle (7:26)
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