City, Country, City-- Jason Ricci and Joe Krown
Jump Children --the Scott Silbert Big Band
Little else existing gets the blood pumping faster than the pulverizing rhythm of big band swing. Limbs twitch, hands beat a tempo on table tops, feet tap then turn and then twist in acrobatic dervishing as the ballroom floor fills with the righteous joy of dancers moving to the galvanizing pace of trombones, trumpets, and saxophones galore joined in a righteous 4/4 stride. In its prime in the 30s, 40s and up to the 50s, it was the music supreme. Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, and many others filled the ballrooms, the concert halls, and radio airwaves coast to coast.
It was rebellion, rhythm, pot, secret hooch in pocket flasks, riffs romance, the music of a Nation on the go on the dance floors, in the factories, on the march in the War to End all Wars as America seduced the world with the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I'm nearly 70, born too early in 1952 to remember what monumental big deal the big bands were, but decades of speaking to elders kind enough to share their memories and record collections with me, I think it would be safe to assume that collectively those telling me tales of big bands, tour buses, and bandstands thought that this was a glorious thing that would never end. But it did. The eventual ascendancy of Elvis, Chuck Berry and rock and roll in general in the 50s, to make a complicated tale too brief in the telling, was a principal reason the Big Bands were pushed from the center spotlight. Though never completely out of the public mind, jazz in general and big band jazz in particular became marginalized. Efforts over the years to restart interest in the Swing Era brand of brassy sass have mixed results over the years. In a general way and in the interest of keeping this review concise, suffice it to say that college big bands, various sorts of revivalist ensembles and especially that faddish "Swing Revival" of the late eighties-early 90s, to varying degrees, struck me as academic recreations at best, gimmicky opportunism at worst. You couldn't help but wonder if anyone would happen along, unexpected, with a blazing take on this grand tradition, not as an ancient thing that needed to be refurbished or rehabilitated instead as a life force that can make the nervous system jump again in an age where modern music seems determined to deaden our wits.
Jump Children by the Jeff Silbert Big Band is a choice step in that direction, a session of hard-rocking swing music, fueled by propulsive drums, two fisted piano chords and sharp, superbly textured, rapidly applied horn and reed arrangements. Silbert, a jaunty and fluid tenor saxophonist and arranger and a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, proceeds here as though Big Bands never went out of style. He's assembled a formidable fourteen-member band, players who lock together in common cause to move the listener through deep, brash colors, and intricate time signatures. There's abundance of ensemble electricity here. Or, more like an embarrassment of hot, very hot jazz.
A bold statement, but the music's galloping swagger is evidence that enthralls and rattles the senses. The album opener and title track "Jump Children", a tune recorded in 1945 by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (an all-women and integrated unit that found a measure of international acclaim) is given a blasting, endearingly fidgety treatment here, with fine solos from trumpeter Josh Kauffman on trumpet and Grant Langford on tenor sax swiftly and lightly darting over and around the cut time horn arrangements, all of which boosts Gretchen Midgely's already animated vocals to heights of finger snapping jive. This collective of virtuosos through a rich swath of known and less known tunes from the period, performed with a superb rhythm section that makes the music move with a youthful flair you might not have expected. There is nothing dated here. There are many sweet spots, but I would point out two especially catchy numbers, the first being an intrepid iteration of 1939's "In a Persian Market" by Larry Clinton indulges in magnificent stop-time fun after the main theme is stated. Second, the Silbert Big Band's treatment of Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkin" from 1941 is an elegant jaunt, a spare set of horn charts laced together with sublime statements from multi-reedist on clarinet and Leigh Pilzer on baritone sax. The album concludes on a stratospheric note, the warhorse tune "Stompin' at the Savoy" (composed by Chick Webb and Edgar Samson), the trademarked horn charts soaring over a brutally effective swing section while a round house of soaring and succinct solos from Kauffman (trumpet), Jen Krupa (trombone), Silbert (tenor sax) and Ken Kimrey switch off with the unison horn lines in a melee of musical chatter.
Blue Kind of Miles --Peter Sprague
It's an odd situation when there's a jazz artist giving tribute to history's most acclaimed jazz trumpeter who proceeds with a band lacking what you'd assume is the most essential instrumentalist. Yes, we're speaking of a Miles Davis commemoration that exists and moves forward without a trumpet player in their ranks. Odd, yes, but no quandary need apply here. In Guitarist Peter Sprague’s recent offering, Blue Kind of Miles, the absence of a trumpeter is strategic artistry. A reinterpretation of Davis’ music from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue, Sprague and longtime comrades (brother Tripp Sprague on sax, flute, and piano; Mack Leighton on bass; and Duncan Moore on drums give themselves the luxury to play with Davis’ seminal compositions. Anyone awaiting the chance to distract with useless complaints about how a younger horn player goes about playing the music of someone whose oeuvre many think invaluable can take the day off. Blue Kind of Miles, highlighting Sprague’s delicate arrangements of Davis’ mystical, modal, and near minimalist tone poems, allows the music to breathe with the fresh breath of this quartet’s sublime collective personality.
Far more than compensating in place of a trumpet is versatile reed man Tripp Sprague as the album’s secondary soloist, and throughout the disc he reveals what he knows about tone, phrasing, and constructing a soulful message. He fills his solo space with a bevy of melodic ideas on the album’s opening number, a high-stepping rendition of the Davis classic “So What.” His sound is warm and full. His relaxed yet agile playing commands close attention. Peter, as always, combines a precise lyricism to his guitar work; his ensemble work approaches a world-beating classicism, but as those who’ve followed his diverse career since he first appeared on the scene with Dance of the Universe in the seventies, there is an innate swing to his playing. Samba to bop to a bluesy funkiness, all embodied in this improviser’s statements. The haunting flamenco inflections of his spotlight section on Davis’ “Blue and Green” moves you in a way usually reserved for the saddest lyric poets.
“Freddie Freeloader” is a funky conversation among Tripp, Peter, and bassist Leighton—short, bluesy phrases and clipped riffs, something said, a pause, a quizzical response, an emphatic reassertion, another pause, and a musical shrugging of the shoulder. The band then finds the shuffling groove and makes it move steadily with sway and sass, led by Leighton’s fleet bass outing, making the bass run and skip through its walking paces and maintaining the feeling of a rag shop boulevardier seen in all his street corner majesty. Tripp and Peter provide their solos in seamless order; Tripp’s reed work is a moaning blues mosaic of deep-toned exhilaration, laying down a rhythm and blues inflected hard-bop grit he manages with dexterity and lightness of touch. Peter’s foray into sharp notes, deft runs, and graceful octave work, following the bass line closely, hewing close to the spare theme, but lacing fleet lines at unexpected intervals. The proverbial sound of surprise. “All Blues,” likely the most covered Miles Davis composition, gets a shrewd modification in this outing, with a brisker than usual pace and some additional and tricky changes before the improvisations commence. It is to be expected, I’d say, given the universal familiarity of the original motif. Odd, but most of the versions I’ve come across over the years don’t alter Davis’ spare construction very often. This arrangement provides the atmospherics for a twisting pair of extemporization from the Sprague brothers, followed by a remarkable, rich bowed solo from Leighton. Drummer Moore, a champion on all the tracks as he performs wonderful rhythm section duties with Leighton, cannot be praised enough. Pulse, groove, flawless shifts in tempo, the man behind the traps keeps this session grooving the particularly provocative paths that Miles Davis laid out. Blue Kind of Miles is an intriguing and innovative tribute to the man’s singular vision as an improviser and composer.