This independently recorded and released big band effort from Detroit's Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra is a gem on a number of counts. There are few big bands, or large ensembles if you prefer, recording these days, which is enticement enough. That this 20-piece ensemble is augmented by trumpet giant Marcus Belgrave on a pair of numbers gives it a certain bit of international credence, too, though that's not to overlook the wealth of talent assembled for this project. Players like saxophonist/flautist Keith Kaminski, tuba and euphonium wizard Brad Felt, and sax/flute/clarinetist Steve Wood have long and deep histories on the Detroit jazz scene, and there is nary a man on board who isn't up to the task.
The bulk of the songlist is from young Gwinnell's pen and they share space with brilliantly arranged takes on Jules Styne's "It's You Or No One," Tadd Dameron's "On A Misty Night" and Cedar Walton's "Bolivia." This is a band that comes to rock the walls, as they do every Tuesday night at the impossibly small Cadieux Café on Detroit's East Side.
Pianist/composer/arranger Gwinnell pays homage to the music and the musicians he cut his musical teeth on, though with a freshness of thought and sense of playfulness that interjects his own personality into each piece.
The opening version of "it's you or no one," with Belgrave sharing space with Kaminski's exceptional soprano work, is a superb springboard into this delicious collection. The horn and rhythm sections kick a solid support for the masters to play off of.
Belgrave and Kaminski come back for tandem work on the first section of the centerpiece title suite. "basement vibes" is divided into three sections. The first, "imp of the perverse," is dedicated to Charles Mingus. Belgrave put in time with the Mingus' band (as well with Ray Charles and others) and has a natural flair for the challenging arrangement. His tandem work with Kaminski on this piece is superb. The tone runs from the riff of "Fables of Faubus" to lines reminiscent of Let My Children Hear Music. The second section, "lullaby for a dark spring" and "calamity on cass" close the suite on an introspective note.
Cedar Walton's "bolivia" is given a tight treatment benefiting from Gwinnell's chart as well as the superb interplay between Brad Felt and Steve Wood, bringing to mind Phil Woods. "on a misty night," with gorgeous solos from Woods and trumpeter Mark Byerly, is given an ensemble reading that would have charmed Dameron.
"shriek of the shrike" is a sometimes disjointed, shifting melody that benefits from the electric guitar of Matt Thibbideau and fretless bass of Chuck Bartels, respectively. It's a blast from the future with an adventurous arrangement. The closing "716 blues," a tribute to Frank Foster, the Detroit native who led the Count Basie Orchestra for years, is straight out of the Basie songbook. Respect paid to the spaces and space made for swinging ensemble work, this gives space to trumpeter Paul Finkbeiner, saxophonist Mike Bomwell and trombonist Matt Martinez. Like all that proceeds it, it is a wonderfully written and arranged piece played by a stellar cast of players.
Given the protected-species status of big bands, it's a treat to hear a new recording with charts this exciting. That the players are first-rate and first-class instrumentalists makes this large ensemble recording one of the best of the past few years.