Bob Florence is successful as an composer and arranger for some of the reasons that Duke Ellington was: for the most part, Florence has had consistent personnel in his Limited Edition band since the late 1970s; he writes with the sonic personalities of his musicians in mind; he approximates some of the sounds the he hears in daily life; he leads through his piano playing, which is accomplished and a treat unto itself; and he can expand upon a theme, layer after layer, as he derives complexity where apparently but incorrectly only simplicity exists. Florence’s latest recording another in a long line of recordings for major artists and of famous arrangements like Si Zenter’s "Up a Lazy River" continues to build upon these strengths that distinguish his arrangements and his recordings.
And it builds upon them very cleverly at that.
Eternal Licks and Grooves is appropriately titled. The listener perceives from the first track its almost universally recognized quote as it slowly emerges. That quote’s familiarity and building-block characteristics supply all that Florence needs to create a complex, exciting, 14-minute composition. The quote is Count Basie’s "One O’Clock Jump," and Florence wrote "Eternal Licks & Grooves" after ASCAP and the International Association of Jazz Educators commissioned it for the work’s premier at the IAJE convention in California in 2005. Florence’s throbbing initial ostinato, joined by Trey Henry on bass and then by bass trombone and baritone sax, establishes anticipatory suspense, even as it underlays the trombone's first allusions to the Basie theme. Once the entire band comes in, we find that Florence shrewdly uses Basie’s licks and grooves as motives, as he works in references in unexpected moments throughout the piece. Offering the highest respect for Basie’s influence and inimitable sound, Florence incorporates Basie themes as compositional elements, as if stitched in a quilt. Then he uses them as inspirational points to launch confident, delightfully unfolding solos by guitarist Larry Koonse, trombonist Scott Whitfield and drummer Peter Erskine.
For a closer mirroring the tribute/quotes concept of "Eternal Licks & Grooves," Florence contributes another ingenious arrangement, "Appearing in Cleveland," which honors Stan Kenton. Another commissioned work, perhaps recalling Florence’s composition for Kenton’s Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra in 1965, "Appearing in Cleveland" weaves in even more memorable themes than does "Eternal Licks & Grooves." Some of them include "Intermission Riff," "Artistry in Rhythm" and "Eager Beaver," which arise during the performance sometimes when least expected. Along with Ellington’s role as pianist-band leader, Kenton seems to be an important influence for Florence as well, for, after a dramatic brass fanfare, he starts "Appearing in Cleveland" with his piano reference to Kenton’s "Artistry in Rhythm." After that, the band comes in add body to the arrangement with rich colors and swelling and contracting dynamics. At a time when highly innovative big band arrangers are in short supply, Bob Florence’s Eternal Licks & Grooves remind us that he has been advancing the craft for decades and deserves notice as one of the best on the scene.
Consistent with his varying piano introductions for the first and last pieces, Florence just as engagingly starts Debussy’s "Claire de Lune" with the well-known piano recital approach, only to lead into a light clarinet version. But Florence’s imagination carries the thought even further as he uses the famous Impressionistic composition’s left-hand triplets for igniting the brass section before Carl Saunders’ trumpet solo and before its exciting finish. Not only does "Claire de Lune" demonstrate Florence’s fearless ability to deconstruct even some of the most venerable compositions, but also reminds listeners once again of his insight in selecting the appropriate instruments to realize his vision. "Claire de Lune" effectively contrasts the airiness of the woodwinds against the power of the brass, not to mention setting up the piano as a stylistic opposite of both of those Limited Edition sections. Also, it shows how well he understands the tonal contributes of each instrument in completing his musical palette, just as he did with the counterpoint of the trombones at the start of "Eternal Licks & Grooves."
Wittily again, Florence makes sure that his version of "I’m Old Fashioned" is anything but old fashioned. After trombonist Alex Iles’ initial traditionally mellow solo, Florence refashions the song by animating it with swirling sixteenth notes, as if simulating the action of a locomotive. "Invitation," already haunting and beautiful enough as an dreamy referie, receives even more mysterious attractiveness when heightened by Florence’s embellishing devices after, once again, his at-first single-note piano intro. The track is especially noteworthy for the intriguing improvisation of tenor saxophonistJeff Driskill and Henry’s clever limning of a solo over just four notes.
We need not despair about the state of the big band when composers/arrangers like Bob Florence are contributing such artful, wry, intricately textured, insightful and entertaining creations like the pieces on Eternal Licks & Grooves.