Having played tenor saxophone for over thirty years, big band music and Starbucks are in my blood. Lately it seems like the big band side of jazz has become top heavy with bands that are technically proficient enough and have more than their fair share of talented instrumentalists and composers but a great deal of the arrangements of tunes that most of us are a tad tired of are simply falling off a musical cliff - at least until now.
Jen Wendelboe and his Big Band's Fresh Heat is as hot as the cover shot with modern contemporary arrangements of timeless classics by the likes of Clifford Brown and Joe Henderson with some Wendelboe originals sprinkled in for flavor and the end result is a fresh contemporary kick in the pants that big band has needed for years. Arguable Clifford Brown's best tune "Joy Spring" opens with the pristine vocals of Deb Lyons and begins their version of a big band round that adds flavor, character and a dimension of swing that you do not often hear from the standard big band. A vibrant and hard charging swinging is infectious throughout this rock solid ensemble. Vinnie Cutro lays down a swinging trumpet solo with a beat your hear with your feat. Curious to see if the vocals of Deb Lyons were more than just a lucky one shot deal, "My Funny Valentine" allows Lyons to shine. The release takes off with Wendelboe not just as a prolific trombonist but his skills as an arranger allow new life to creep back into some tunes that while classic are dated. Wendelboe tags this release with his own indelible mark with horn charts that will make a player drool and the passive listener become captivated with the musical direction he pushes each tune. "What A Trip" borrows from the group Roomful of Blues motto, "Aim The Beat At Their Feet" simply put Wendelboe was born to swing and gives a similar performance on "Falling Grace" the previous tune but dialed back to a subtle elegance turning a red hot big band into a dynamic large ensemble that shows their keen sense of melody and lyrical direction of purpose.
Occasionally the phrase making old school new cool and the phrase applies perfectly here. With influences that include his current gig with Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago and Tower of Power there is a unique contemporary energy to the horn charts of old school classics. Swing is not a date on the calendar - it a groove, a statement of mind or perhaps best put as joy placed on a musical staff.
Space literally prohibits me from expounding further on what is for my money - one of the two best big band records made in the last decade.
Tracks: Joy Spring; No Mercy; Black Narcissus; My Funny Valentine; Falling Grace; What A Trip; Nix Vogel; Suite to Bjorn.
Personnel: Deb Lyons: vocal; Tom Timko: 1st alto, soprano sax, flue, clarinet, bass clarinet & baritone sax; Michael Migliore: 1st tenor sax; Joey Berkley: 2nd tenor sax; Sam Bortka: baritone sax; Bob Millikan: trumpet 1; Steve Jankowski: trumpet 2; Rich Savage: trumpet 3; Chris Rogers: trumpet 4; Dan Levine; trombone 1 & euphonium; Charley Gordon: trombone: trombone 2; Chris Rogers: trumpet 4; Dan Levine: trombone 1 & euphonium; Charley Gordon: trombone 2; Jen Wendelboe: trombone 3; George Flynn: bass trombone/tuba; David Anderson: electric bass; Lee Finkelstein: drums; Bill Heller: piano/synthesizer.