[5 May 2004]
This is not music of the ‘20s in overall style, but take Justin Time’s word that the themes date from between 1919 and 1931. The scores go beyond where it’s at all comfortable to use the term “arranger”. Rob McConnell‘s a composer, no less, and these are his arrangements, out of (mostly the top of) his bag with early Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and Slide Hampton. The opener, “Thou Swell”, is up with the best as an arrangement resourceful in doing things between solos. He takes care. Everybody gets a blow, the (on earlier evidence) best-established improvisers at the start. This is not routine, and the later soloists match the (to those in the know) stars. There are no shadows.
The estimable Steve Wallace has something of a feature on bass in a second selection which is a sort of marriage of the cool with 1950s Basie. The pianist had to be good, especially managing the shift of emphasis that shows off the bassist. “Lover Come Back to Me” opens with tenor, but is mostly ensemble pyrotechnics before the admirable altoist P.J. Perry gets to treat it as his feature. As Sonny Rollins said of Stan Tracey, does anybody know how good this man is?
McConnell likes his allusions, and after a few neatly dropped and witty bop quotations, there’s Milestones in the accompaniment. Perry’s tour de force solo goes into a brief bout like collective improvisation, neither Eddie Condon nor the sometime avant-garde all blowing at once (if not at one). It creates a wonderful moment of irresolution and opportunity for the pianist to take a substantial solo. Here, working with a properly dynamic version of big band drumming, David Restivo has at times a little of Red Garland, but he’s his own man as soloist. He manages suspense very well, hints at conventional multi-note runs, then goes into economically direct phrasing. The man can think, and there’s ample opportunity to hear him solo, always satisfyingly, on this set.
Following that high stamina performance another non-twelve-bar title lifts some of the harmonisation of “Blue Monk” before the leader solos. Wallace has another ingeniously accompanied feature, being joined at the end first by one trombone then the other, all very lower cleft brotherly, trombones with string bass, before another and as-ever resourceful playout, fresh and free from routine. There’s probably some reciprocal relation between the quality and resource of McConnell’s writing here and the striking fact that this is one of those extremely happy recordings (they turn up occasionally) on which it seems everybody plays at his best. If anybody can demonstrate any of these men playing better, I shall thank all of them.
Guido Basso (another secret far too well kept) on “Always” alternates between bell-like and velvety-muffled. This arrangement would sound good with Clark Terry too, and it sounds pretty good with this highly individual flugelhornist, who (flirting with “Tristeza” in the course of his performance) commits no Terryisms. The influence of Clark Terry has been considerable. While there’s small doubt Freddie Hubbard admires that old master, Hubbard in a blindfold test interview in Germany a couple of years ago became apoplectic (turn it off!) listening to a recording on which the trumpeter played sheer Terryisms. Such behaviour goes cold. Guido Basso is never sterile.
“I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” has McConnell soloing with a lot of tonal variety on his horn, and there’s plenty of good piano. The arrangement tries at times to pretend this is a 1940s theme, the single gong bash which ends it remarkably apt. These guys like making music.
“Indian Summer” opens like Woody Herman, but how can two trumpeters / flugelhornists in ensemble play the curious twist on the tune McConnell fits in early? Stravinsky admired a famous four-trumpet ensemble passage by Ralph Burns so much he transcribed it. But he thought there were five horns. I was just startled to know there were only two, but I probably have some more nice surprises in store when I listen to this again. Alex Dean’s tenor solo is post-Coltrane and he gets to keep the horn in his mouth a long time, before summoning Wallace’s bass for a longish solo that ends with some harmonisation between the bass and the ensemble. You don’t hear that very often. The peculiar joy of jazz, segueing into something serious with what might be taken for a joke, ends this selection with a tight-muted statement of “Summertime”. McConnell likes making people think.
Terry Promane’s trombone statement on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” repeats the ancient device of swapping with another tune. I started thinking he was re-echoing “Summertime”, but it became “Old Man River”, which is indeed about how long something has been going on. I’m not much into programme music (which supposedly represents literal events), the worst being the “bathing the baby” passage in Richard Strauss’s “Sinfonia Domestica”, whose making the other baby section has of course better precedents! Franz Liszt pupils tended to carry indications of expression in performance by attaching literary readings to existing compositions. McConnell is in big company and the whole tonality of Mike Murley’s tenor solo carries the message. A brilliant idea!
The notes’ suggestion that the arrangements are the real star is certainly challenged more than once, probably because the arrangements encourage soloists to excel. Both tenorists, incidentally, are in good form. The previous set by this ensemble didn’t seem to address (a problem) that they’re stylistically distinct from, say, Basso’s affinity to pre-bop cornetists and Perry’s affinities (in style not tone) with Sonny Stitt—let alone many aspects of McConnell’s ensemble writing. Each tenorist needs a different kind of space from those stylistically easier to integrate in this band, but would anybody superficially more immediately congenial have the same creative potential? On this band’s third CD for Justin Time, McConnell has mastered the art of writing for the whole group. They seem less hampered by the ensemble than other tenorists have seemed with other ensembles. The tenor feature on “With a Song in My Heart” goes into a nice piano unwind before Wallace displays his fingertip control of pacing and speeds things up immensely, just like a pulse starting to race, heart beating faster. Terry Clarke’s drumming is a major asset in summoning the effect of a large, brassy big band when McConnell wants just that.
Steve McDade’s trumpet captures well the poignancy of “What’ll I Do?”. He moves between leading the ensemble and soloing, and McConnell’s harmonisation of the band behind him takes him in some interesting directions. The closing ensemble on that take is phrased so lyrically and lovingly as to catch the listener’s breath.
Well, what you ought to do, Maestro McConnell, is accept—along with this reviewer’s congratulations on the award to you of the Order of Canada—my thanks for the privilege of hearing your master class. You are a soloist always worth hearing, it does no harm to say again. A very wise old bird indeed, you’ve produced something satisfying and stimulating. If the pre-eminence of your own soloing and compositional achievement is challenged by the performances you’ve got from your men, well, you’ve only yourself to (along with a number of listeners) thank. A lot of thought does on good occasions go a very long way.