On your first listen you'll be impressed by the emphasis given to the orchestra's high-caliber soloists. Menza motivates his musicians by not presenting what he calls "wall to wall big band." However, he does strike a balance between solos and the ensemble. He has arranged for Maynard, Louis Bellson and others and, like Holman and Mulligan, writes long lines that meet, interweave and separate. You'll hear this in the four many-faceted originals that make up the core of this CD. The swinging "T'n'T" showcases the agile trombone section and its soloists, Bob McChesney and Alex Isles. "Faviana" is Brazilian, mostly melancholy, and uses all the brass and woodwind colors at Menza's disposal. It may remind you of Gil Evans and Miles. Don Rader is soulful, reflective and intense as his horn explores the melody. "Hark the Harold" could be subtitled "Stella Meets the Four Brothers." It features Lanny Morgan on alto, playing chorus upon chorus, leaving all inhibitions behind. "Broad Bottom" is just the right title for an imaginative bop chart that gives the melody to the bass clarinet, bass trombone, bass, piano left hand and Menza on tenor.
There's beauty in the ballads. Menza is as softly romantic as Ben Webster in his intriguing solo on "Nina Never Knew" as it moves from outside to melody and back again. Bobby Shew is expressive and impressionistic in his approach to "Prelude to a Kiss" where a bari-anchored Ellington-like interlude salutes the composer.
From the opening Gene Ammons blues, "Gravy" to the finale, "Time to Leave," you'll find something new at every turn. The Ammons chart is chock full of solos including a quirky funk intro from pianist Mike Abene and a high-energy performance by Jack Nimitz on bari. "Time to Leave" is the bop translation of "After You've Gone." Menza delivers a fiery performance. It may be time to leave but you won't want to.