When reviewing a jazz release by an all-female band, it’s difficult to resist the urge to make at least some passing comment on the gender issue, and rather than try to resist I’ll simply address it right up front. Yes, there are definitely some people that believe that jazz played by women, particularly women horn players, lacks a certain fire as compared to their male contemporaries. If you are one of those people, I strongly urge you to take a listen to this latest release from Sherrie Maricle & the Diva Jazz Orchestra - TNT: A Tommy Newsom Tribute. To say that these ladies play "as well as any all-male band" would really be an insult, because music as great as this rises above such frivolous distinctions. This is pure jazz played at a stellar level by some incredible musicians - indeed, some of the best I’ve ever heard, male or female.
Diva was founded (and managed for the first 10 years) by Stanley Kay, a former manager and relief drummer for the Buddy Rich Big Band. In 1990, Kay was conducting a band where Sherrie Maricle was playing drums. Impressed by her skill, Kay wondered if there were other women musicians with a similar caliber of musicianship. A nationwide audition of players produced a core group of musicians who performed their first concert in March of 1993. Since then, Diva has performed in some of the world’s most prestigious music venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl and various international jazz festivals.
There are three things that all great mainstream big bands must have: fantastic arrangements, spectacular soloists and the ability to swing like crazy. Diva has all that and then some. On this particular release, the focus is exclusively on the arrangements of Tommy Newsom, tenor saxophonist for almost 30 years with the Tonight Show band. The arrangements are sweeping, lush and vivid and make full use of the fine group of musicians that make up Diva. In addition to Maricle on drums, there is Karolina Strassmayer and Leigh Pilzer on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen and Scheila Gonzalez on tenor saxophone, Lisa Parrott on Baritone saxophone, Liesl Whitaker, Tanya Darby, Barbara Laronga, Cindy Bradley and Jami Dauber on trumpet, Deborah Weisz, Lori Stuntz and Leslie Havens on trombone, Chihiro Yamanaka on piano and Noriko Ueda on bass.Comprised mostly of standards along with a couple of Newsom originals, these ten tracks represent a great blend of the modern and the classic. There are three medleys that, for the most part, are very cohesively constructed. The only thing that didn’t ring true to my ears was the three-part vocal harmony on "Straighten Up And Fly Right," as presented in the "Nat Cole Medley" track. It sounded just a bit hokey in relationship to the rest of the album, which is all instrumental. However, there are so many joyous moments of absolutely awe-inspiring playing on this album that such a small issue is hardly worth mentioning. This is a richly entertaining album, sure to appeal to both big band and non-big band fans alike. Great players, great arrangements, great tunes - what more could you ask for?