After bringing a few friends to Vancouver, BC to see the Vienna Art Orchestra on their 20th anniversary highlights tour in 1997, one asked, after recovering from the non-stop two-hour rhythmic frenzy: "Why haven't I heard of them before?"
It's a good question but one that only applies to America's egocentric jazz industry. The VAO has been practicing its brand of brash and brilliant Big Band irreverence since 1977 to international acclaim but only now after acceptance in over 40 countries is the band of merry pranksters ramming the hull of its musical ship onto these shores. An astute and witty writer, arranger and parodist, leader Mathias Ruegg has consistently brought together a band of frolicking and talented musicians to fire the kiln of his rollicking works. That we haven't been listening is hardly his fault and our loss rather than theirs.
But there's been a bit of a courtship going on. After 1998's all-star ramble through Gershwin's songbook (RCA Victor), Ruegg & Co. now embark on a cruise through Ellingtonia.
The match fits. Like Duke Ellington, Ruegg composes and arranges with the soloists of his unit in mind. And Ruegg, like Ellington of old, took these tunes on the road before recording them - Sound of Love, like most VAO albums is recorded live in concert - allowing the musicians to wear and grow comfortable with his arrangements. So when the music is committed to disc, the solos are confidently free and the ensemble passages supple with the rhythmic punch of a top-trained pugilist.
The program mixes relative obscurities - "Red Garter", "Very Special", Strayhorn's luminous "After All" - with monster hits like "Mood Indigo", "Sophisticated Lady" and "A-Train". Ruegg weaves these tunes into a near seamless quilt showing all the colors of Ellington's prolific gift. The effect is like one of the great composer's own suites ("Black, Brown & Beige" or "Far East"), thematic intertwining like a symphonic work of rich texture.
Each arrangement has its solo spotlight and all are outstanding. Soprano saxophonist Harry Sokal gives a Gonsalvesesque rave up on "Very Special" and Thomas Bansch's muted trumpet on "Lucky So and So" . And in Anna Lauvergnac, with her Marlene Dietrich cabaret take on swing, Ruegg has a vocalist that fits his whimsical model. Her duet with altoist Andy Scherrer on Strayhorn's heartbreaking "Blood Count", is in its quietude perhaps the disc's most daring moment.
But the focus here is really on the band and the sass of Ruegg's charts. Rightfully so. As Sound of Love testifies to chorus after chorus, he is one of the truly great jazz arrangers of the past 30 years. One listen to "Rockin' in Rhythm" confirms this - we get all of Ellington's magical sweep broken from the shackles of over-reverence through brash exuberance.