One of the tragedies of the fading of jazz from the American popular-music landscape is the disappearance of the big band. And one of the inevitable losses to the listening public is the diminished roll of arrangers in contemporary jazz. If side men were the backbone of the big bands, the arrangers were the heart, pumping life into old tunes and creating new sounds with their arrangements.
Veteran drummer Gregg Fields latest CD, The Art of Swing, welcomes back accomplished arranger Sammy Nestico, who arranged all the tracks here. Both men were closely associated with the Count Basie Band, so it comes as no surprise that several of Nesticos charts hearken back to the golden days of the big band. The tempos on this project are mostly moderate, the solos are professional, and the overall tenor of the music is controlled. While Nesticos arrangements are traditional, they are neither trite nor dull. His scores call for flexibility from the players even and some doubling on other instruments, but for most of the album the four sections of the big band are kept intact.
The tone of this CD is set from the opening bars of the first track "The Blues Machine." This is a moderate-tempo blues that is a toe-tapper. The song opens with the first of several capable solos by pianist Pete Jolly, and is followed by a wry solo by veteran Basie Band trumpeter Snooky Young. Trombonist Andy Martin is also featured here, but his solos in other songs later in the album are noteworthy for their long melodious lines and his seeming ability never to take a breath. Other solos on this album, by saxist Pete Christlieb and trumpeter Ron Stout, stand out for their clarity and fluidity.
Although all the tracks are at different tempos, they all swing -- as promised. The ballad "Its A Wonderful World" is a luscious arrangement that looks back to the era of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, and you can almost picture yourself dancing beneath the mirror ball in a grand ballroom. One of the most pleasant surprises is Nesticos arrangement of "Whos Sorry Now." This short but rollicking version breathes new life into an overdone standard, and features some of this albums best ensemble playing. The tempos of the songs "Satin Doll" and "88 Basie Street" are perhaps a little too relaxed, but they are nonetheless interesting and fun.
The arrangement of Gershwins "Fascinating Rhythm" is more aggressive than the other tracks, and although no new ground is broken with this arrangement, it is a challenging piece that calls for a great deal of precision. The blend between the trumpet and trombone sections is exceptional when they harmonize melody lines without rhythm-section accompaniment. It ends in a series of frenzied modulations, and climaxes with a unison statement of the opening phrase guaranteed to put a smile on the face of any jazz enthusiast.
The producers along with engineer Andy Waterman created a clean recording with only a few noticeable problems with the sound of the piano and excessive sizzle on the trumpet section. A conspicuous discrepancy of reverb levels in the song "Small Talk" resulted in all of the solos sounding overdubbed. Even if they were, it is doubtful that was the desired effect. At times this album does not capture the true dynamic range of the band from the quiet sultriness of a solo flute to the raucous power of the full ensemble. Happily, these problems never detract from the music and ultimately this CD offers an honest reproduction of these talented musicians.
A word should be added about bandleader and drummer Gregg Field. The sign of a good jazz drummer is that you dont notice hes there; he has to provide a rock-solid beat, but his contribution to the overall sound has to be transparent. Field accomplishes this and more. He only allows himself brief solos on the final track, "The Heats On," where he opens with a sizzling beat on the high hat and continues to push the band throughout the song. Although he takes only one chorus to "play out," he is careful not to completely overshadow his band. In doing so he displays technique and musicality that has served him throughout his years in the music business playing for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Tormé, and many more. Its a shame we dont hear more tracks like this with a variety of different beats and styles, but as it is with any great drummer, less is more.
Big-band enthusiasts will enjoy this CD for the excellent ensemble work, the well-played solos, and the artistry of Gregg Field and Sammy Nestico who continue to swing and provide great jazz recordings.
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