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Saxolollapalooza by Frank Macchia

Jazz fans of a certain age will no doubt remember a band called 'Supersax.' Co-led by saxophonists Buddy Clark and Med Flory, Supersax played tightly harmonized big-band arrangements of Charlie Parker's music, including the solo improvisations. Despite the emphasis on Bird's musical legacy, Supersax was manned by first-call LA session players, and the band's bread-and-butter was their ultra-high-precision ensemble work. Frank Macchia's "Saxolollapalooza" treads similar ground, albeit with a considerably more broad stylistic sweep. Like Supersax, Macchia and his bandmates are elite, LA-based studio saxophonists whose first love is jazz, even though their extensive musical experiences cut across all genres. Unrestricted by one man's oeuvre, Macchia is free to experiment with a variety of rhythms - from straight ahead jazz, to funk, to bossa nova, to New Orleans Second Line. He leaves ample space for soloists on these occasionally cutesy (check out their versions of 'Down By The Riverside,' 'Java' and 'Shortnin' Bread'), reworkings of extremely well-known jazz and pop standards. But the thing that grabs me here - besides Peter Erskine's always remarkable drumming - is the band's effortless precision and deftness with Macchia's intricate arrangements.

Another, perhaps more salient, comparison could be made to Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, a sorely missed band (and bandleader) if there ever was one. Brass Fantasy, like Macchia's band, covered a dizzying array of well-known pop blues, and funk tunes throughout their multi-decade existence. While not having the free-jazz or avant-garde street-cred of the Brass Fantasy, "Saxolollapalooza" comes pretty close to the Brass Fantasy ethic. Like Brass Fantasy, they use bass horns (bass sax, bari sax, and contrabass clarinet) to carry the bottom end, and they have no compunction about covering all sorts of unexpected tunes; such as Michael Jackson's 'Working Day And Night' which, here, sounds like a James Brown tune being covered by Tower of Power. "Saxolollapalooza" also gets rather adventurous on several tunes. Most rewarding in this regard are 'Caravan,' (which has some lovely and unexpected harmonies and a fine twisting solo by the leader), 'Air Mail Special' (some mind-boggling drumming by Peter Erskine here), and an amazing, rhythmically-displaced version of 'Work Song' that I simply could not eradicate from my mind after a couple of listens (not that I was trying!).

Though this band grooves hard, the mellower tracks work out quite nicely. A haze of flutes and clarinets surround Gene Cipriano's sweet-sounding bari sax on a truly beautiful interpretation of 'My One And Only Love.' Clarinets loom large in Macchia's arrangement of 'Creole Love Song,' which pays homage to the blues and features a soulful solo by ex-Chick Corea sideman Eric Marienthal. By contrast, 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' starts off with an exteneded solo by Macchia that sounds as stark, dramatic, and lonely as Courtney Pine's wailing tenor in the 'Angel Heart' soundtrack. It's a bit of a letdown when the ensemble comes in with a gently rocking, but quite conventional, reading of this old Spiritual.

To record a CD of intricately-arranged jazz standards for a saxophone ensemble is not the most original idea to come down the pike, but Frank Macchia raises the bar to a new level on "Saxolollapalooza." If you're not too fond of jazz and pop standards, the disc's saving grace will be the humor, fluidity, and funky ease displayed throughout by Macchia and his band. Their virtuosity - along with Peter Erskine's remarkable contributions - also offsets the occasionally cloying preciousness of Macchia's arrangements on some of the tracks. In the end, "Saxolollapalooza" is a fun CD - several tracks clearly qualify as party tunes and pretty much all of it will thrill jazz fans and non-fans alike.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Frank Macchia
  • CD Title: Saxolollapalooza
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Cacophony Records
  • Tracks: Air Mail Special, Down By The Riverside, My One And Only True Love, Working Day And Night, Java, Caravan, Shortenin’ Bread, Bluesalicious, Creole Love Song, Work Song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, That’s A-Plenty
  • Musicians: Frank Macchia Eric Marienthal, Bob Sheppard, Gene Cipriano, Sal Lozano, and Jay Mason ( (saxophones), Peter Erskine (drums)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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