Saturday, July 1, 2017

Large Ensembles July '17 - Nods to Bob B & Sgt. Pepper

Brian McCarthy, composer, arranger, and saxophonist, looks at the United States during a time when it was at its most divided, the Civil War. Six of the nine tracks on "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (Truth Revolution Records) were composed during the conflict, two are original, and one, "Oh Freedom", is an African American spiritual. Using a quote from President Abraham Lincoln's 1861 Inaugural Address as its title, the album could be weighed down by expectations as well as by comparisons to today's toxic (to many) political climate.  But the project came into being thanks to a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant in 2015 and really took flight when the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington Vermont in November of that year.

Vermont Public Radio
Opening with "The Bonnie Blue Flag" (composed in 1861 by Harry McCarthy - no relation to the leader), the song was a favorite of the Confederate States.  McCarthy, the arranger, creates an impressive arrangement around the melody, one that sounds quite contemporary. After the nonet explores the melody, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas begins a lengthy solo accompanied by the handsome piano of Justin Kauflin. The piece picks up with the entrance of the rhythm section, then the brass and reeds. Not surprisingly, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" follows, a piece that has as much for the North as the previous one did for the South.  The leader opts for a less rousing readin, opening up the chords to give the piece its wings.  Fine solos from pianist Kauflin and the leader on alto saxophone.

I admit that the first two tracks, while well played, did not capture the emotions one imagines anthemic music provides for people.  "Shiloh", the first of McCarthy's original, has great power and gravitas while still telling its story. The title track is the other McCarthy original and is a three-part look at Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer, then the President, and closing with the Person.  There's authority in Bill Mobley's fine solo that closes the first part.  Kauflin's strong piano work draws a picture of President in command of his emotions after several early Confederate victories. Tenor saxophone Stantawn Kendrick also solos in that section and the second section comes to a crashing close. The last two minutes are contemplative, quiet, a portrait of a man reflecting on all the events occurring as he attempts to right the Ship of State.

There are numerous highlights during the remainder of the album.  Daniel Ian Smith's impressive soprano sax solo on "Battle Cry of Freedom" as well as the lengthy exploration of the "I Wish I Was In Dixie" sparked by Zach Harmon's powerful drums and featuring strong saxophone work from Kendrick and McCarthy. However, it's the two ballads - "Weeping, Sad and Lonely" and "Oh Freedom" - that really stand out.  The latter track, scored for reeds and brass, may remind some of the short introduction Blood, Sweat, and Tears created in 1968 for its reading of "God Bless The Child."  Still, it's a powerful gospel work and the performance is captivating. That should be the last cut but Brian McCarthy decided to add a "bonus track", a swinging take of "All Quiet Along The Potomac To-Night" (composed by John Hill Hewitt in 1863).  It's fine with good playing all around but it is anti-climatic (hence the "bonus" appellation).

Minor quibbles aside, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" is a powerful statement - particularly tracks three through eight - about the Civil War, a conflict whose issues were not confined to the four years of horrific battles and skirmishes but whose roots are in the country's fight for independence and its centuries of racial inequality.  The music is a compelling fusion of our ethnic makeup, the messages in the songs are (mostly) uplifting, and the performances often riveting.

For more information, go to

Brian McCarthy, composer, alto & soprano saxophone
Daniel Ian Smith, tenor & soprano saxophone
Stantawn Kendrick, tenor saxophone

Andy Gutauskas, baritone saxophone
Bill Mobley, trumpet & flugelhorn

Cameron MacManus, trombone
Justin Kauflin, piano
Matt Aronoff, bass
Zach Harmon, drums

Here's the title track:

Trombonist, composer, and arranger Ed Neumeister (born in Topeka, Kansas, and raised in the San Fransisco Bay area) moved to New York City in 1980 and was soon a member of the Duke Ellington and the Mel Lewis Band (which became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra after Lewis passed).  He, also, performed and recorded with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Gerry Mulligan, Aretha Franklin, and the New York Philharmonic.  After nearly two decades in Europe where he taught and worked with the Metropol Jazz Orchestra, Budapest Jazz Orchestra, and Jazz Big Band Graz, Neumeister is returning home to the United States, New York City, to be precise.

Like many modern composers-arrangers-educators (Jim McNeely Bill Kirchner, Maria Schneider), Neumeister displays the influences of Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer, doing so without imitating any of them.  His new self-released and fan-funded album, "Wake Up Call" (MeisteroMusic), is his first with the NeuHat Ensemble, a group he has written for over a decade. The musicians, listed below, should be familiar to most readers as many of them work and record with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, with Ms. Schneider, and with Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project.  And, like much of the material those groups play, the songs are more about melodic and harmonic development, a narrative, rather than an vehicle for multiple solos.  Yes, it could be called "concert music" and that's fine. While there is plenty of rhythmic action, the leader wants you to listen and have emotional reactions.

Listen to the glorious tone-poem "Reflection" to hear how each member of the Ensemble contributes to the piece, how the tension is heightened by the repetitive lines in various sections while drummer John Riley colors the piece with his fine cymbal work.  After the long introduction, the melody is moved forward by the brass until Dick Oatts (on tenor) and trombonist Larry Farrell begin a solo section (aided by the atmospheric guitar work of Steve Cardenas and David Berkman's impressionistic piano).  There's more than a hint of Burt Bacharach in the arrangement and melody line of "Dog Play", enlivened by the sweet clarinet work of Billy Drewes. The focus is on the tenor sax of Rich Perry on "New Groove" but not until the melody is laid out by the reeds and brass.

There are impressive examples of ensemble writing throughout the album, especially on the opening and closing tracks. "Birds of Prey" moves in quietly on percussion before the main melody is introduced shared by the sections. There are no solos, just different voices moving in and out of the melody as well as the background.  No solos either on the title track that closes the album.  Yet, listen how the reeds and brass share melody and harmonies while the rhythm section creates a light samba feel.  There's a playful nature to the interactions, the piece moves insistently forward and, again, listen to how all the pieces fit so well.

"Wake Up Call" is a delight from start to finish with melodies that linger long after the final fade. Though it's taken nearly three years from the recording dates to the release date, the music is timely and timeless.  With Ed Neumeister moving back to the US, maybe the NeuHat Ensemble will bring this music to concert halls. That's so nice to contemplate!

For more information, go to

Mark Gross
Dick Oatts
Billy Drewes
Rich Perry 
Adam Kolker

Tony Kadleck
Ron Tooley
Jon Owens
Dave Ballou

Keith O’Quinn
Marshall Gilkes
Larry Farrell
David Taylor

David Berkman - Piano
Hans Glawischnig- Contra Bass
Steve Cardenas - Guitar
John Riley - Drums

John Hollenbeck - percussion

Take a listen:

Until "Big Alpaca", the self-released debut album from the Bill Simenson Orchestra, came in the mail, I knew nothing about the man and his ensemble.  Do what I did - go to and you'll discover the composer, trumpeter, and educator has led quite a busy life. Take a look past the names listed below under personnel. Chances are, unless you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (where the ensemble is based), you've not heard of these musicians.  Do not walk away from this album. Give it a good listen. You'll hear the influences of Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer in the compositions and arrangements as well as hints of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Wheeler.

Thanks to an Artist Fellowship, Simenson took time off to study composition for big band. In 2012, he formed the Orchestra, they began playing once-a-month in Minneapolis, learning the music and how to create a unified sound. In late January of 2016, they entered the Sateren Auditorium of Augsberg College (also in Minneapolis) and emerged with this album.

Jazz Central Studios
Allow the music to roll around your brain.  Whether it's the bluesy opener "Bedlamoogie" (and its Count Basie-lie dance rhythms) or the noir-ish "Uptick" or the "Killer Joe" flow of "Pete's Waltz", this program has many pleasing qualities.  There are pieces that swing in delightful fashion such as  "New Shoes" with the brass and reeds playing off each other in contrapuntal fashion. Dig the second-line groove of "Steamboatin'", replete with playful trumpets and forthright reeds plus a straight-forward swig under the solos.  The title track opens with a strong bass solo before the playful interaction of the sections roll through the melody. Trombonist Ryan Christianson and the leader share the solo spotlight, the former with just the rhythm section and the latter with the brass and reeds vying for your attention with quick riffs.  "Might Have Been" has the makings of a classic big band ballad with the reeds and brass introducing the melody before excellent solos from Pete Whitman (soprano sax) and pianist Ted Godbout. Both short, both sweet.  In the liner notes, Simenson credits the influence of Alison Krauss for the creation of "Titanium"; perhaps that influence shows in the ways the band moves together underneath the melody or how the sections make the melody and rhythm fit so seamlessly.  Not sure how Ms. Krauss's music and lovely voice impacted the composer but it is quite a good tune.

In the 1930s and early 40s, the Bill Simenson Orchestra might be considered a "territory" band, with its home base in the Twin Cities.  It's easy to imagine people gathering in a club or auditorium to listen and to dance. "Big Alpaca" is truly a collection of good tunes.  The songs don't necessarily blow you out of your chair as the melodies and the crisp execution of the band insinuates its way into your head.  Give the album a listen and you'll be glad you did.  Go to to find out more.

Pete Whitman (soprano and alto saxophones), Doug Little (alto sax and flute), Clay Pufahl (tenor sax), Scott Johnson (tenor sax), and Gus Sandberg (baritone sax)
Bill Simenson (leader, composer, arranger, trumpet, flugelhorn),
Paul Stodolka (trumpet, flugelhorn), Elizabeth Stodolka (trumpet, flugelhorn), and Jake Baldwin (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Pete Enblom, Ryan Christianson, and Matt Hanzelka (trombone)
Derek Crosier (bass trombone)
Ted Godbout (piano)
David Martin (guitar)
Chris Bates (bass)
Dave Schmalenberger (drums)

To commemorate and celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the release of The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the ​Frankfurt Radio Big Band​ (also known as the hr-Bigbandcommissioned British multi-instrumentalist Django Bates (keyboards) to "reimagine" the classic album from 1967. Commission partners include the Norrbotten Big Band ​(Sweden), the ​Danish Radio Big Band​, and the ​UMO Jazz Orchestra.  For the recording, Bates brought along  Stuart Hall (acoustic and electric guitar, electric sitar, violin, lap steel) plus the Danish trio Eggs Laid By Tigers (vocalist Martin Ullits Dahl, bassist Jonas Westergaard, and drummer Peter Bruun) to augment the reeds and brass sections plus guitarist from the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (personnel listed below).  

The assembled multitude move through "Saluting Sgt. Pepper" in the order of the original album. Bates doesn't change the music drastically but makes room in each song for his "alterations" - for instance, listen to the reeds and brass dance during the second chorus of "With a Little Help From My Friends" and the raucous tenor saxophone work of Tony Lakotos on "Lucy In the Sky..Lakatos bops away on the extended close of "Getting Better" over a snappy arrangement.  Impressive drum work from Bruun takes the place of tablas on "Within You Without You" (the one George Harrison song on the record) as well as strong violin work from Hall. Flutes replace the violin, the brass jump in, and Hall switches to electric sitar in the solo section.  The brass sound like a traffic jam and car alarm at the onset of "Lovely Rita" - there is a Blood, Sweat, & Tears feel to the playful arrangement, especially in the middle of the song.

The desperation that seemed to envelop John Lennon's vocal on "A Day In The Life" is missing - Dahl, who does an impressive job throughout the album, seems a bit distant here.  Yet, listen to the long rising line to the center section (the McCartney part of the song). After its climax, there is a feel of Rio De Janeiro and samba. It's cleverly done, a delightful shift in the mood. Back for the final verse and the long-awaited final piano chord. Bates gives the brass a quick shout and there's a long fade until....the goofy closing loop from the original pressing.

Kudos to the participants as they handle the classic material and the alterations Django Bates brought to the party with aplomb.  Dahl and his compatriots from Eggs Laid By Tigers (the band took its monicker from as Dylan Thomas poem) capture the vocals without imitation (harmonies are nicely done). All in all, a fun and fine tribute that old fogies such as myself (18 years old at the time of the original album's release) and younger fans will enjoy.

For more information, go to

Here's a live version of the Harrison song (check out YouTube for the group's versions of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever":

Frankfurt Radio Big Band (hr-Bigband):
Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn: soprano sax, flute, clarinet.
Oliver Leicht: alto sax, flute, clarinet, alto clarinet.
Tony Lakatos: tenor sax, flute.
Steffen Weber: tenor sax, alto flute, bass clarinet.
Rainer Heute: baritone sax, bass sax, bass clarinet, contra alto clarinet. 

Frank Wellert: trumpet.
Thomas Vogel: trumpet.
Martin Auer: trumpet, flugelhorn. 

Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn. 
Günter Bollmann: trombone.
Peter Feil: trombone.
Christian Jaksjø: trombone.
Jan Schreiner: bass trombone. 

Martin Scales: electric guitar. 

No comments:

Post a Comment