George Gee Big Band

Settin' the Pace - the Music of Frank Foster

by Robert R. Calder

11 November 2004


Frank Foster 75th Birthday Celebration

Since one of the sessions this music was recorded on happened to coincide with my birthday earlier this year (some decades still lie between me and my own 75th!), I might as well award the cake to the tenor saxophonist and arranger who was invited to conduct this band through a selection of his own arrangements just a couple of dozen weeks back. He does not, I have to say, play here.

George Gee runs one of a number of big bands which, unlike during the 1930s and 1940s, don’t tour ballrooms across America. Such studio bands exist when members (at least some of them) aren’t touring, which some of them are lucky to do as members of the few big bands with big enough names to be commercially feasible. There are two members of the touring (ghost) Count Basie band in this ensemble, of which Frank Foster became leader after a long career, playing in and writing music for the ensemble(s) Basie reconvened from the 1950s on.

cover art

George Gee Big Band

Settin' the Pace - the Music of Frank Foster

US: 21 Sep 2004
UK: Available as import

The one member of the band on this set who I’ve seen a few times is actually sitting in for a band member who couldn’t make these sessions, or the gig at Birdland which preceded them. Howard Johnson is the substitute, opening his one sizeable solo like a less flowingly phrased Joe Temperley (B-I-G sound on baritone saxophone). I’ve seen Johnson in big bands with Dizzy Gillespie (who did have a “permanent” big band while it lasted, and which was reassembled for tours). Johnson was also with McCoy Tyner, who toured quite a while back with an ensemble he ran in New York. I also know Johnson from recordings with Gil Evans. He’s a big man, and not slumming.

I also heard, on tour, the “Duke Ellington” band over which the grandson Paul Ellington presided, no more of a ghost band on that occasion than is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the most official and most regularly proficient current big band I can think of. I also heard a pretty good Scottish big band last year in the miniature cathedral city of Dunblane, Scotland. The baritone saxophonist looked about eighteen, and one tenor saxophonist had actually toured in dance bands during the late 1940s. This was no amateur fumbleband. It found fun by actually playing bloody well. Thus also George Gee’s band, which visitors to the precincts of its playing venues might bear in mind. I speak with good credentials. I loathe Gl*nn M*ll*r.

Mr. Gee supposes Frank Foster musically on a par with Ellington and Copeland. Aaron Copeland? Actually he’s neither, but one presumes that Mr. Gee is, as Frank Foster says, “a happy cat” and you don’t need to be Ellington to be a composer/arranger worth hearing. Here he manages a muscular sort of sound, like late Basie, and like the bands led by Illinois Jacquet and Buck Clayton.

The repertoire is a mixture of standards: “Out of Nowhere”, “In a Sentimental Mood” (beginning with a clever Ellington-pastiche), and “When Your Lover Has Gone” (fluegelhorn from Walt Szymansky). All the charts, save one by the tenor Lance Bryant on which he sings, are Foster’s. There are some nice compositions of Foster’s like “Settin’ the Pace”, on which Howard Johnson has his blow, and Eddie Bert participates in a three-trombone rumble-up with the slightly lesser known Charles Stephens and Jack Jeffers. Joe Cohn, excellent guitarist of pedigree (his tenor saxophone father, alas now departed, wrote some mighty charts in the past) has a decent chance in “Ready Now That You Are, GG”, and the bassist Daryl Hall seems to have had “Bass in Yo’ Face” as his farewell piece, before beginning “relocating to Europe”. Robert Trowers does nice work on trombone, John Cowherd is a very good band pianist, and the singer Carla Cook—who has a mature rather than youthful style—has a Grammy nomination. Michael Hashim, Ed Pazant, Marshall McDonald solo—see the website for names I’ve missed.

It’s very nice to know that bands like this exist, and really can and do play. And, certainly for the charts of his own compositions, and his direction of the band (which have some of his charts in their regular book), this is a nice addition to Frank Foster’s discography.

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