Saturday, August 8, 2015

Ensembles Small & Big (August '15)

The second album from the Michael McNeill Trio - "Flight" (self-produced) - opens with a piano solo. Titled "Placid, Ruffled", the piece sets the tone for a program that that is adventurous, intelligent, and highly musical.  The leader is an integral part of the creative music scene in Buffalo, NY, playing in numerous ensembles as well as teaching on various levels. The rhythm section  of Ken Filiano (bass) and Phil Haynes (drums, producer) are improvisers of the highest order, understanding that trio music is conversational and interactive.  You'll hear that in Haynes' sprightly brush work on "Za" and how the drummer gently but firmly propels the music forward on "Picture Window."   Filiano's thick tones and fluid lines provide excellent support and strong counterpoint throughout; his bowed bass work has classic overtones on pieces such as "Wild Geese I: Cloudburst" in which his stormy interactions with the piano create great tension.  His long introduction on "Skies" (nearly half of the 6 minute piece) is exploratory, quivering phrases interspersed with sweeping lines leads to a barely audible piano solo that, to me, is an auditory representation of sunset.

There's the bluesy "No Dice" that may remind some of Keith Jarrett's early trio work and the soulful "In That Number" which slyly shuffles forward on Haynes' exquisite drumming and Filiano's deep low notes and interactive phrases.  McNeill, to his credit, rides, even glides, atop his rhythm section. He's not a showy pianist, more of a sonic "painter" than a "technique freak".  He can certainly swing (he does so quite nicely on "Za" and quite forcefully on "Wild Geese III: Follow Our Sun") yet the manner in which his phrases flow on "Picture Window" illustrates how the pianist listens, reacts and creates within a song.

"Flight" is thoughtful music, interactive music that is seriously playful. Michael McNeill gives his collaborators plenty of creative license throughout; the listener will find much to ponder and enjoy each time the recording unfolds.

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"Like It Is" is the 5th album for John Fedchock (trombone, compositions, arrangements) and his New York Big Band, the first one to be released on the MAMA/Summit label. Fedchock first came to national attention in the early 1980s as a member of the Woody Herman Orchestra and went on to work with T.S. Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Bellson, Bob Belden and many others.  The New York Big Band came together over 25 years ago, composed on musicians very active on the contemporary music scene then and now, and released its first CD in 1992.  Powered by the excellent drum work of Dave Ratajczak (a charter member of the band who passed several months after this session), the music hearkens back to Fedchock's days with Herman in its excellent section writing that not only moves the music forward but offers great support to the fine soloists.  The title track, one of 5 Fedchock originals, pairs the the drummer with percussionist Bobby Santabria and the dynamic duo drives the music with great abandon.  There's more of a subtle approach on the trombonist's "Havana", a piece with such a sensuous rhythm and wistful melody plus strong solos from the leader and flutist Mark Vinci. When the brass and reeds sweep in after the solos, it's like a warm breeze off the Caribbean.  One can just imagine dancers swirling across the floor on Cedar Walton's "Ojos De Rojos", the bounce and attack of the drummer and percussionist propelling the melody, the sections and the soloists with great joy.

There are highlights galore over the 70-minute program. "You and the Night and The Music" opens the recording on a series of high notes, starting with Fedchock's smart arrangement of the melody followed by excellent solos from the leader, Vinci (alto saxophone), Rich Perry (tenor sax) and Ratajczak. Scott Robinson and his eloquent baritone saxophone lead the way on a delightful take on Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" (with kudos to the delightful bass work of Dick Sarpola). The spirited call-and-response of the brass and reeds on "Just Sayin'" opens to a playful soprano solo courtesy of Charles Pillow while Barry Ries delivers a sweet, soulful, flugelhorn solo on "For Heaven's Sake." The album ends with "Ten Thirty 30", a blazing track whose title refers to the birthday of trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930-1956).  The splendid trumpet solo is courtesy of Scott Wendholt with additional statements from pianist Allan Farnham, Perry and the leader.  Make sure to pay attention to the super work of the rhythm section as they "drive" this piece with abandon.

In a year that has already seen a number of fine "big band" or "jazz orchestra" records, "Like It Is" will appeal to those fans of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.  The John Fedchock New York Big Band swings is collective butts off and also displays a sweet and mellow side ("Never Let Me Go" is an original ballad whose melody is played by the brass and reeds before the leader delivers a emotionally rich solo.)  Many members of the band work with the large ensembles of Maria Schneider and Ryan Truesdell as well in Broadway "pits" and recording studios. This music goes down easy, like a cool glass of rosé on a warm summer night.

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Here's the opening track:

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