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Hot Wax – January 2016

Jazzed Magazine • Hot WaxJanuary 2016 • December 31, 2015

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Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings At The Village Vanguard (Resonance Records)

  • Thad Jones – trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Mel Lewis – drums
  • Hank Jones – piano
  • Richard Davis – bass
  • Sam Herman – guitar, percussion
  • Jerome Richardson – alto saxophone, clarinet, flute
  • Jerry Dodgion – alto saxophone, clarinet, flute
  • Joe Farrell – tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute
  • Eddie Daniels – tenor saxophone, clarinet
  • Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone
  • Marv “Doc” Holladay – baritone saxophone
  • Snooky Young – trumpet
  • Jimmy Owens – trumpet
  • Bill Berry – trumpet
  • Danny Stiles – trumpet 
  • Jimmy Nottingham – trumpet
  • Bob Brookmeyer – trombone
  • Jack Rains – trombone
  • Garnett Brown – trombone
  • Cliff Heather – trombone
  • Tom McIntosh – trombone

There are few groups that hold a more important place in the annals of jazz than the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. It’s an ensemble that created a signature sound by marrying raw passion and the spirit of the blues with compositional sophistication, blending low-down testifying and high art in a way that was hitherto attempted. And it’s the band that put Monday nights on the jazz map in New York. 

Now, as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is about to celebrate fifty years of those Monday night performances – twelve years with Jones and Lewis at the helm, another twelve under Lewis’ name without Jones, and twenty six years (and counting) in its current state – Resonance Records is releasing a trove of material from the group’s earliest days at New York’s most storied venue.  All My Yesterdays is made up of music from two different performances – the orchestra’s opening night at the Village Vanguard, on February 7, 1966, and another Monday there six weeks later. The sound quality is remarkably good, and we have George Klabin to thank for that: the president of Resonance Records recorded both shows himself when he was nineteen years old, capturing the dawning of this now-legendary ensemble for posterity.

The first of these two discs presents six numbers from the orchestra’s inaugural night at the Vanguard. The opening track – a bluesy, brash, and bold ”Back Bone” that swings hard for more than thirteen minutes – is simply astounding. There’s a Mingus-like rawness and passion in the way the individual voices react to one another and express themselves, but the intensity of the swing is something else entirely: Lewis and bassist Richard Davis create a tremendous rhythmic current that can’t help but suck in everything in its path. From there, the orchestra slows things down with “All My Yesterdays,” presenting a manicured sound that includes muted brass backing and silken saxophones at different points. It’s a short-and-sweet number that stands apart from the rest of the high-energy fare that fills out the disc. In that department there’s two takes of “Big Dipper,” a piece uplifted by buoyant swing and enlivened by playful soloists who yelp, howl, and deliver sputtering phrases; “Mornin’ Reverend,” a number that mixes exotica, the church, and blues notions in semi-Ellingtonian fashion; and a lengthy performance of “The Little Pixie” that highlights this orchestra’s unique ability to shift from small group focus to full band roar in a variety of ways over the course of a number.  There’s an elusive energy at play here, as informality is balanced out by some very serious blowing and locomotive swing. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was just getting started, but you’d never know it.

The second disc, presenting a show from March 21,,1966, is a far longer affair – more than seventy-five minutes in length, as opposed to the sub-fifty minutes on the first disc – and a slightly tidier one at that. “Back Bone,” “All My Yesterdays,” and “Mornin’ Reverend” appear again, along with eight other expertly driven numbers. Early on there’s a let’s-get-going take on “Low Down” a beautiful “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?),” a soulfully swinging “Ah, That’s Freedom,” and the bossa-based, flute-lined “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” Then there’s an ominous and woozy “Willow Weep For Me” that presents with moaning chords and muted colors, a gleeful “Mean What You Say,” a charged and thrilling “Once Around,” and an elegant, piano trio-focused take on “Polka Dots & Moonbeams.” By the time the orchestra gets through those numbers and ends the set with the three aforementioned return pieces, it’s completely clear from today’s vantage point that something exciting and new was stirring here. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra would forever change the face of big band music, and this release tells the story of how it all began. (Dan Bilawsky)


John Fedchock New York Big Band

Like It Is (MAMA Records)

  • John Fedchock – leader, arranger, trombone
  • Mark Vinci – alto saxophone, flute
  • Charles Pillow – alto and soprano saxophones
  • Rich Perry – tenor saxophone
  • Walt Weiskopf – tenor saxophone
  • Gary Smulyan – baritone saxophone (tracks 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9)
  • Scott Robinson – baritone saxophone (tracks 2, 7, 8, 10)
  • Tony Kadleck – trumpet, flugelhorn (lead on tracks 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10)
  • Craig Johnson – trumpet, flugelhorn (lead on tracks 1, 2, 5, 8)
  • Scott Wendholt – trumpet, flugelhorn (tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 8, 10)
  • John Bailey – trumpet, flugelhorn (tracks 1, 4, 9)
  • Barry Ries – trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Keith O’Quinn – trombone
  • Clark Gayton – trombone
  • George Flynn – bass trombone
  • Allen Farnham – piano
  • Dick Sarpola – bass
  • Dave Ratajczak – drums
  • Bobby Sanabria – percussion (tracks 2, 5, 7)

Trombonist John Fedchock has been arranging for big bands at least since starting with Woody Herman in 1980, and Like It Is is his fifth release with his New York Big Band, so, as you might expect, it features state-of-the-art writing and playing. The mix of standards and originals showcases a variety of top-flight veteran soloists in the kind of arrangements that have been a hallmark of the post-swing big band era. That is, swing as it might in its own way, this isn’t dance band music. And though there are outstanding sections for soloist-with-rhythm section, the pieces are as much about the relationship between soloist and ensemble, and the soloist as a key in propelling a piece from one episode to the next.

So, yes, Fedchock’s solo on his own medium-uptempo swinger “Just Sayin’” is a showcase for his own bravura technique, but it’s also about the alternating assenting choruses that come in behind him from reeds and brass, and about the contrast between Fedchock’s articulate mid-range brawn and soprano soloist Charles Pillow’s high-end blues. 

Each of these 10 pieces – a mix of standards and originals – offers similar pleasures. Lead track “You and the Night and the Music” offers a good example of how Fedchock can hear a piece as an arrangement of fast-moving parts. From the introductory kick of Dave Ratajczak’s drums, the Dietz-Schwartz classic is a mere reference point, the theme breaking down into dissonant harmonies and a broad palette of colors and registers, from the mid-range statement of the theme by the reeds, to interjections from muted trumpets and deep trombones. Solos in turn from Fedchock, alto saxophonist Mark Vinci, and tenor Rich Perry all tackle the chart at high speed, but never breathlessly, everyone varying their phrasing and leaving moments of space. And again the point seems to be the way the soloists and ensemble together carry the piece from one section to the next. Listen especially to the way Vinci and the band build a crescendo in counterpoint, creating a seamless bridge to Perry. Musicians will probably marvel at how the band was able to execute such a tricky chart without a trainwreck (or wonder how many takes it required), but the piece unfolds with unfettered authority. And Fedchock knows how to write a chart that’s full of action without becoming too busy, deeply textured yet still transparent.

There are also simple pleasures here that do hark back to the dance floor, like the title track, with its insinuating boogaloo groove, trumpeter Barry Ries’s bebop runs and riffing cadences perhaps intentionally recalling original bebop-Latin fusion master Dizzy Gillespie. Here, as well as on Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo” and Fedchock’s cha-cha-cha “Havana,” percussionist Bobby Sanabria provides the perfect cross-rhythm underpinning. Another standout on these tracks is pianist Allen Farnham, whose solo on “Ojos de Rojo” shifts easily between montuno vamp and extended single-note runs. On the same track, Gary Smulyan’s hefty baritone is both rocking and smooth, like a big man who’s as light as a feather on the dance floor. Smulyan’s final duet improvisation with trumpeter Scott Wendholt is another high point, an especially exciting pas de deux.

Of course, it was Fedchock who had the wit to write in that final duo part with a swirling chorus of accompanying “dancers.” Fedchock, who is as experienced with small groups as large, understands that if you’re going to gather 16 players, you should make the most of it. Otherwise, why bother? (Jon Garelick, Twitter: @jgarelick)

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