Sunday, January 8, 2012

Large Ensembles, Expressive Voices

The best review of "Standards", the latest release from Bob Brookmeyer (ArtistShare), comes inside the package.  Maria Schneider, a disciple/student of the late composer-arranger, does a thorough job of explaining each one of the 8 tracks.  This CD, released several weeks before Brookmeyer passed in December of last year, features his favorite aggregation of the past 15 years, the New Art Orchestra with special guest Fay Classens on vocals.

If you are a Brookmeyer fan, you probably already own the recording (perhaps you even contributed to ArtistShare to support the project.)  If you have never heard a CD with Brookmeyer and the NAO, then you are missing some of the most vital contemporary music created in the new millennium.  The way the arranger uses the different sections (the brass writing is particularly sharp on "Standards") can often be breathtaking.  On this CD, the different ways that Brookmeyer frames Ms. Classens' vocals really captures the ear.  "Detour Ahead", a piece co-written by Herb Ellis, Johnny Frigo and Lou Carter, has been recorded by scores of artists, from Billie Holiday to Sarah Vaughan to Kurt Elling, features smooth horn lines (lovely soprano saxophone shadowing the vocal) and the most delicate drumming from John Hollenbeck. The "heavy" opening of "Love for Sale" gives away to a lovely brass and reed introduction to the vocal, which is sung over Kris Goessens' expressive piano.  Yet, the bluesy swagger of the opening returns for a short lead to the brass & reed intro.  The "cat-and-mouse" game goes on throughout the song - on the final verse, Ms. Classens gives the tune a tremendous emotional life.

Brookmeyer has recorded "Willow Weep for Me" on numerous occasions starting in 1966 with his arrangement for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.  Here, the arrangement retains its bluesy mood but has a darker feel in the opening.  The sweet trumpet solo from Ruud Breuls over a rhythm that could have come from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is long and languid and goes out on a playful note; still, the ominous horns and synthesizer lines lead the song and soloist out.

The opening section of "I Get A Kick Out of You" is literally indescribable - magical, classically inspired, it drops away to Goessens' piano and Ms. Classens' singing the rarely-heard opening verse.  Then, we move into the body of the song and the arrangement builds off the simple piano riff and Hollenbeck's propulsive ideas.  

"Standards" allows the listener to bask in the light of Bob Brookmeyer one more time. Like most of his big band work (starting with Gerry Mulligan in the late 1950s until this recording), the more you listen the more you hear.  John Hollenbeck's drum work is quite impressive; not only can he drive a large ensemble, but he plays so subtly behind the Ms. Classens (listen to his simple yet brilliant work on the last verse of "Detour Ahead.") It may be a cliche to write that Bob Brookmeyer (1929-2011) will live as long as music lovers continue to explore his recordings and bands play his arrangements or his numerous students continue to create new music for large ensembles but it's true.  Thanks to the wonderful musicians and vocalist, the engineers, the people who supported the project as well as the people who buy the CD, this music is a living and breathing testament to the joy Bob Brookmeyer gave to all of us through his creativity and hard work.  To find out more, go to   

"Changing Seasons"(ALMA Records) is an ambitious project composed and arranged by Canadian-born saxophonist/pianist Phil Dwyer.  The 4-part suite - "Spring", "Summer", "Autumn" and "Winter" - features a 37-piece orchestra plus guest soloists Mark Fewer (violin, conductor of the 21-member string section) and Ingrid Jensen (trumpet on "Winter").  The music is supple, luscious, built around Fewer's expressive violin work.  The band can swing, powered by the rhythm section of Chris Gestrin (piano), Ken Lister (bass) and Jon Wikan (drums, percussion) and there are many moments when Dwyer's arrangements balance the strings and "big band" sound.  Wikan, who also is the propulsion beneath Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, does fine work throughout the program. His subtle yet strong work under Fewer's solo on "Autumn" allows the piece to breathe and his rambunctious work on "Winter", especially as Fewer then Ms. Jensen solo is quite enjoyable.  

Fewer, Artistic Director of the Sweetwater Music Festival and chair of the string department at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, plays with emotional intensity throughout.  He opens "Autumn" by himself, with a lovely melody that shows his impressive technique; yet it's his heart that one hears in the music.  In the middle of the piece, his poetic lines dance atop the active rhythm section. 

"Changing Seasons" is the second recording I've reviewed in the last few weeks that uses the different times of the year to tell its story - Anthony Wilson's "Seasons: A Song Cycle for Guitar Quartet" was the other. Both CDs are rich with melodic inventions and strong musicianship.  Phil Dwyer, who's recorded with bassist/vibraphonist/pianist Don Thompson as well as the Bridge Quartet, truly stretched himself to create this stirring music. The blend of strings with big band reeds, brass and rhythm section sounds natural, relaxed yet with much depth.  For more information, go to or

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