Monday, January 29, 2018

Visions, Dreams, and Realities

What a treat to immerse oneself in a big band recording!  To hear how the different sections work together and independently, how the solos are built upon such elegant and intelligent foundations, how melody leads to counterpoint, how rhythm leads to interaction, how the composer and arranger utilizes all these voices to tell his or her story, all this and more is exciting to these ears.  The sound of the big band in jazz has grown from the primitive yet really sophisticated work of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington and Fletcher Henderson in the 1920s and 30s, from the "territory" dance bands of Benny Moten and Count Basie, the high-powered swing of Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, the smoother sounds of the Dorsey Brothers (together and separately) and Glen Miller and beyond.  The work of Gil Evans with and without Miles Davis in the 1950s and 60s as well Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer paved the way to the work of Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, Alan Ferber, Ryan Truesdell (in his case, Gil Evans) and a number of younger voices such as Darcy James Argue, Ayn Inserto, and more.

 Jim McNeely (born 1949) grew up (musically) in the 1970s, working with the likes of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Phil Woods, and Stan Getz.  After Thad Jones moved to Europe, he began working with the Mel Lewis Orchestra and soon discovered how much he loved arranging and writing for big bands.  Mentored and employed as a pianist by Bob Brookmeyer, McNeely learned much and soon began working with big bands such as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Danish Radio Big Band, and, since 2008, has been the chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio (HR) Big Band. That group is featured on his new album "Barefoot Dances and Other Visions" (Planet Arts), a stunning and highly enjoyable seven-song suite that speaks to the composer's relationship with these musicians and their myriad abilities.

What composer McNeely envisioned was a song cycle that pulled together a number of story-lines, from the celebration of Mr. Brookmeyer that opens the album, the playful and ebullient "Bob's Here", to the somber, wistful yet a bit bouncy ballad "A Glimmer of Hope" to the wondrous swing of "Redman Rides Again" (a tribute to the arranging style and adventurous nature of Don Redman (1900-1964) - the stunning interaction on the last track mentioned between the clarinets of Heinz-Deiter Sauerborn, Stefan Weber, and Rainier Heute with the electronically manipulated clarinet of Oliver Leicht is flat-out brilliant.

When you listen to program, notice the brilliant foundations laid down by bassist Thomas Heidepriem, how the electric guitar work of Martin Scales is so important to both the power and direction of certain pieces, the amazing work of the brass and reeds, and how drummer Jean Paul Höchstäder is the linch-pin for so much of the music - his power, his push, his fills - just the way he dances underneath trombonist Günter Bollman and the rest of the band on the title track is life-affirming. As you work your way back through the music, you'll hear soloists such as trombonist Peter Fell, tenor saxophonist Tony Lakatos, and trumpeter Axel Schlosser maneuver through the arrangements to create memorable solos.

With exception of his work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (also released on Planet Arts as well as New World Records), "Barefoot Dances and Other Visions" is only other large ensemble work by Jim McNeely to be issued on an American label. This is music that should be heard - like the best work of the afore-mentioned composers and arrangers (Ellington, Brookmeyer, Schneider), the music builds off the past but is clearly of its day. This is also music that speaks of the creativity of the American musical experience, when freedom, creativity, talent, and the curiosity to see how one can continue to move forward collide to create art.  Plus, it's great fun from the opening minute right to the end!

For more information, go to and to The latter site has several concert videos (not of the music on the new CD but of collaborations with bassist Dave Holland and vocalist Gretchen Parlato).  

Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn--Alto Sax, Soprano Sax, Flute, Alto Flute, Bass Flute, Clarinet
Oliver Leicht--Alto Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Alto Clarinet, Alto Flute
Tony Lakatos--Tenor Sax, Flute, Alto Flute
Steffen Weber--Tenor Sax, Flute, Clatinet, Bass Flute
Rainer Heute--Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, Alto Flute
Frank Wellert--Trumpet, Flügelhorn
Thomas Vogel--Trumpet, Flügelhorn
Martin Auer--Trumpet, Flügelhorn
Axel Schlosser--Trumpet, Flügelhorn
Günter Bollman--Trombone
Peter Feil--Trombone
Christian Jaksjø--Trombone, Valve Trombone
Manfred Honetschläger--Bass Trombone
Martin Scales--Guitar
Peter Reiter--Piano
Thomas Heidepriem--Bass
Jean-Paul Höchstädter—Drums

The Diva Jazz Orchestra, founded in 1992 by Stanley Kay after he conducted a band with Sherry Maricle as its drummer, is celebrating its birthday and continued existence with the "25th Anniversary Project", a smashing new recording produced and released through ArtistShare.  Instead of focusing on earlier works or standards, music director Ms. Maricle asked members of the all-women group to submit new works.  She brought two pieces to the project and eight other members have one each.  A number of these musicians and composers have busy careers outside the band but they have brought their best to this effort.

By this time, most people have gotten over the novelty of the "all female big band" and can concentrate on how good this music (besides, when one is listening to a recording, can you tell if it's a woman or a man playing - and does it matter at all?)  The program opens with the rollicking "East Coast Andy" composed and arranged by baritone saxophonist Leigh Pilzer (also a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra) - the song is a spunky romp a la the Basie Orchestra with fine solos from the composer and trumpeter Jami Dauber. Clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Janelle Reichman blends Eastern European sounds and chords with a lively Latin rhythm on "Middleground" (co-arranged with bassist Noriko Ueda) - it's a delight to hear how the sections add to the melody section before pianist Tomoko Ohno dances over the rhythm section. Then, Ms. Reichman takes off with the reeds and brass playing counterpoint.  All the while, the bass and drums keep the piece percolating.

Every track as its standout moments. There is the delightful double trumpets solo (Leisl Whitaker and Barbara Laronga) on "Jami's Tune" and the powerful tenor saxophone statement by Erica von Kleist on "Darkness of the Matter" (composer Sara Jacovino adds a hardy trombone solo as well).  Ms. Maricle's lovely ballad "Forever in My Heart" features a handsome melody by Rachel Therrien on flugelhorn plus intelligent fills from the reeds and brass (excellent baritone sax work from Ms. Pilzer underneath).  The drummer also contributed the final track, aptly titled "The Rhythm Changes", which has a dazzling opening theme that breaks into exciting solos from trumpeter Laronga and alto saxophonist Mercedes Beckman.  Both bassist Ueda and drummer Maricle take short solos with the reeds and brass adding occasional "shout" phrases or bluesy riffs - the scramble at the end of the piece that leads back into the opening melody takes the album on a triumphant note.

Diva Jazz Orchestra may be 25 years old but this album sounds fresh and on target.  There's neither a weak tune nor boring solo in the 65-minute program. Yes, you can hear echoes of Count Basie, touches of Duke Ellington, a bit of Woody Herman but they are just that - echoes.  What truly stands out is how strong this music, how much fun the musicians are having as an ensemble, and how positive the listening experience is.  Happy "25th Anniversary Project"!  Here's to many more.

For more information, go to

Alexa Tarentino: alto and soprano saxophones
Mercedes Beckman: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet
Janelle Reichman: tenor saxophone, clarinet
Erica von Kleist: tenor saxophone
Leigh Pilzer: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Leisl Whitaker: trumpet, flugelhorn
Jami Dauber: trumpet, flugelhorn
Rachel Therrien: trumpet, flugelhorn
Barbara Laronga: trumpet, flugelhorn
Jennifer Krupa: trombone
Sara Jacavino: trombone
Leslie Havens: bass trombone
Tomoko Ohno: piano
Noriko Ueda: acoustic bass
Sherry Maricle: drums, music director
with guest soloist Marcia Gallas on one track

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