Bob Mintzer’s Live At MCG
is an exceptional big band CD. Superlatives lose their meaning when they’re used too freely, and thus are used sparingly. But Mintzer’s big band arranging has grown into such a finely developed form, finding purpose for the voicings and subtlety within larger instrumental configurations, that his band’s album ranks at the same level as some of the most highly anticipated big band recordings, such as Maria Schneider’s or the Mingus Big Band’s. Just as important, recording engineer Jay Dudt captured the entire spectrum of the band’s sound, separating the parts for distinct reproduction of solos and balancing individual improvisation with the volume of the band’s accompaniment. Even though Mintzer’s big band has been playing and recording for twenty years now, this is its first live album, which a Pittsburgh audience was fortunate to hear in May of 2002. For the MCG concert, Mintzer chose to have his big band perform his arrangements from the past ten years; the freshness of the playing and the breadth of the material have created a wide-ranging portrait of his talent. As Mintzer notes several times in the liner notes, his band does include exceptional musicians who not only are familiar with his arrangements, but also who are exciting soloists in their own right.
And then there’s Kurt Elling.
As fascinating as Elling’s Blue Note releases have been, his guest appearances on other’s projects have been uneven. That’s certainly not the case on Live At MCG.
If anything, Elling’s work with Mintzer’s big band is more thrilling than that on his own CD’s. Herbie Hancock’s "Eye Of The Hurricane," for example (first recorded by Elling on Close Your Eyes),
benefits from the interchange of ideas between Mintzer and Elling in a buildup to falsetto exclamations, and Elling appears to abandon all restraints in the free-form development of his improvisation, scatting and employing the extremes of his vocal range in a masterful and commanding interpretation that would be just as exciting if a horn player had crafted it. In a measure of Elling’s talent, the wildness of his improvisation would challenge even top jazz instrumentalists. Mintzer rises to the challenge in his responses to Elling as they trade twelves, Elling taking a chorus of sonically shaping a single note through timbre and dynamics or Mintzer squealing through a chorus, taunting Elling, only to find Elling raising the bar even higher. It becomes apparent that Elling and Mintzer share a common understanding of the music. Mintzer’s arrangements for the three songs that include Elling are done in the tenor range with shifting trombone and tenor sax colors to complement Elling’s voice. "My Foolish Heart," from This Time It’s Love,
proceeds just as an Elling enthusiast would expect, complete with his well-known introduction. The difference is the subtlety of the accompaniment behind him, as the band shifts hues and provides gradual movement behind him. The premiere of the MCG performance is the song jointly written by Elling and Mintzer, "All Is Quiet," which features Elling’s poetic side, as his own lyrics involve the senses of sight, smell, hearing, and as his singing involves the shaping of long tones in unerring pitch and dramatic increases of volume. When Elling’s presentation of the lyrics end, the rhythm section (the entire band drops out of this one) virtually blossoms into a free, floating version of this affecting ballad, pianist Phil Markowitz’s classically informed arpeggiated version accented by no less imaginative work by bassist Rufus Reid and drummer John Riley.
Besides Elling and Mintzer, Markowitz evolves into the standout musician of the CD as well by taking his solos to a higher level than required by the part. On Count Basie’s "One O’Clock Jump," which Mintzer takes in new directions, despite its Basie-like introduction, Markowitz can’t hold back his own personality from the mid-song solo, adding substitutions, stride rhythms and off-center notes. Or on "Original People," Markowitz’s jagged solo achieves fullness through implication from the pointillistic jabbing and punching of notes.
Perhaps it’s unfair to single out one of the musicians, for all of the members of Mintzer’s band perform with a cohesiveness that helps fulfill Mintzer's vision for each of the songs, and yet when they solo, it’s with restraint and a narrative ability to engage the listener, such as trumpeter Scott Wendholt’s transformation from Latin brass soloist on "El Caborojéno" to invigorating balladeer on "Gently."
And Mintzer’s arrangements create dynamic tension, undercurrents of movement and space for individual voices within the band. "Gently," in particular, shows his debt to Gil Evans, using a pedal point as the modal foundation for the compositions and building gradually to the final conclusion. Live At MCG: With Special Guest Kurt Elling
is one of those big band releases that are too few and far between. It offers original compositions, inspiring solos, professional attention to the totality of the band’s sound, the reaction of a live audience, a variety of styles, and the surprisingly effective ability of Kurt Elling to raise the level of excitement of the entire performance through the power of his voice and the fecundity of his imagination.