"Metropole" CD Review
by STEVE JANKOWSKI
Jazz Improv Magazine - Spring 2007
We should be grateful to anyone who's keeping the big band flame burning, assuming, of course, that the music and playing are at a high enough level high to merit presentation, generate interest and attract new listeners. Trombonist Mike Barone, an established jazz artist in the realms of both jazz arranging and playing, has brought us just such an album with only one issue; the majority of the band members are in the boomer category. This is not a bad thing. These guys can play. They also display an obvious understanding of the subtleties of the big band genre. I just hope every one of them is in some way involved in the education of young musicians so this understanding can be passed down.
Just for the record so to speak, Mike Barone has been an integral part of groups and bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Bellson, Bud Shank, Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson, to name just a few. He also worked as composer and arranger for The Tonight Show band with Doc Severinsen for 23 years. We can safely assume he knows what he is doing.
The title tune of this album, Metropole, could be considered a lesson for all of us, especially in terms of balance and control - which are two of the more difficult approaches to master in ensemble writing and playing. "Metropole" begins with a samba pulse underneath. The trombone section reveals a melody that moves from a legato feel to a syncopated staccato. After an alto break, we get back to the melody with a brass tutti in a well-balanced horn mix. The emphasis is notably on expression rather than volume. Steve Huffsteter, on trumpet, picks up the relaxed tonality and glides along with subtle combination of rhythmic and reed lines. Then, a cool counterpoint of brass and reeds leads into an extended ensemble passage. Parts of the ensemble weave around, over, and under each other to create a tapestry of sound and harmonic invention. Ultimately, the Latin influence morphs into a short swing break followed by a flute/reed line which re-introduces the Latin feel. Everything concludes with an energetic but controled shout chorus.
With "Metropole," we get an up front snapshot of a style we'll hear throughout this album. Recently, in a review of a Bud Shank big band album, I spent some time discussing and defining something called "West Coast jazz." Mike Barone's approach has some of those familier "West Coast" cues but in his hands we get less Stan Kenton and more of, well, Mike Barone. This album is about creating excitement with such elements as texture, color, coolness and, from an arranging perspective, chord clusters sprinkled with major seconds and sustained fours. Not to say the band doesn't kick up a fuss and blow us away. It does that often enough. But the soul of their sound is as much internal energy as external - a less demonstrative approach than the one taken by many of the brass dominated orchestras that have made their way across the great divide. Ensemble-as-one-instrument is the essence of this style.
An excellent example of this style is an updated version of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." The tempo is an easy-going, finger-snapping, out for a stroll pace. True songwriting genius has always been evident in this tune, as demonstrated via the unforgettable simplicity of the melody. Barone puts it in such a modern, harmonic context that uninitiated listeners might assume the song was written last week. We get the classic big-band-build crescendo inside "Yes Sir." But when you hear it, I'm sure the sign "professional musicians, do not attempt" will pop into your head. You'll recognize that only talented players who've been around the block a few times could pull off a build in which each tightly orchestrated chorus is played just a little bit harder and louder than the one preceding it. Keith Bishop on alto sax, handles the "that's my Baby" angle with an attitude that oozes confidence and self satisfaction, while Lee Thornburg on lead trumpet makes sure everybody knows who's really the boss in this arrangement.
And now for another one of those $64,000 questions. did Harold Arlen ever write a bad tune? If he has, I haven't heard it yet. One of his tunes, "Blues in the Night," is next. I believe it's safe to say it's probably been recorded 64,000 times. But every once in a while, if the arranger is as capable as Mike, we get something along the lines of Miles reinventing "Bye, Bye Blackbird." (Remember how many people would question his choice of tunes?) Mike takes the Bossa Nova/fusion route on this one, with a double time tempo delivered by pianist John Proulx, bassist Joel Hamilton, and drummer Paul Kreibich. Once again, the ensemble provides some edgy, low volume togetherness on the classic melody which is given a nice syncopated twist at the close of the first phrase. "Blues in the Night" never sounded so 21st century. Mike takes full advantage of it's rich, blue note-based harmonic foundation. Let's put it this way, Maynard Ferguson, God bless him, would have wanted this arrangement, particularly for the way the parts ascend and descend over and between each other - accented by short punchy comments, countered by overlapping phrases of the melody alternately played by brass and reeds. (This is like Maynard's album Newport '61, from a contemporary point of view.) Vince Trombetta is the tenor sax soloist combining bop with blue, a smart combination for this sonic environment. Lee Thornburg accepts the trumpet solo chair in "Blues" and his clean, fluid lines bring us to a traditional big sound, big band ending.
"Grand Central" by John Coltrane serves as a showcase for tenors Ernie Watts and Vince Trombetta. Ernie is first with a cascading series of phrases followed by Vince taking an equally challenging route with a rapid series of phrases over Coltrane's changes. Both of these players have very different tones. Ernie is the deep rich guy, and Vince has a crisp, cutting sound especially in the middle range. When they trade fours or twos or whatever, the overall effect is more of a conversation than a competition - and we know exactly who is speaking when.
One of my personal favorite ballads is "We'll Be Together Again." It features Ernie Watts on tenor sax, in a milieu where his style and the depth of his tone fit perfectly with the sad realities expressed in both the lyric and the melody of this tune. It starts with Ernie and piano up top, with a short intro and an inventive pass over the melody. A chorus of horns provide atmosphere and then take on the melody in the bridge with Ernie doing the fills. The transition to an up-tempo swing gives Ernie the opportunity to create new lines and rhythmic interpretations of the melody. The band returns to the slower, more melancholy pace for a reprise of the bridge. A final chorus features a big, brassy sound, used tastefully for emphasis and effect. Ernie adds the exclamation point to the tune with a cadenza and screeching tenor as everybody joins in. And yes, this rather detailed synopsis of the arrangement does have a point. If the issue in real estate is location, location, location, the issue in arranging is structure, structure, structure. In terms of putting together an arrangement of a ballad for a soloist, Barone's work on "We'll Be Together Again" demonstrates the ABC's of how to do it right - and it's worth a listen for that reason alone.
"The jive guy standing on the corner wearing his Zoot Suit in the '50s twirling his gold chain..." is how Mike describes the inspiration for "Flatfoot." The music does possess some slick, urban charm - the portrait of someone who's wry smile seems to say that he knows something that you don't. It opens with Paul Kriebich on snare drum surprising us with a few bars of a New Orleans march, which eventually transforms into a shoulder pumping, body swinging strut. Have I mentioned the ensemble work yet? Here the style is cool, confident "West Coast" swing which also tells us Mr. Zoot Suit is most probably staked out on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Brian Williams takes us on a frosty baritone sax ride where each note seems to be a hair behind the downbeat, as if Brian wants to tell us all his ideas, but at a pace of his own choosing. Kim Richmond's alto sax solo winds up on the contemporary, neo-bebop side of the street. He is followed by Bob Summers on a trumpet, who takes us down the laid back, mainstream route until moving into the higher register for more aggressive statements. We get the big finish here as well, but one in which the dynamics are controlled and not overstated.
You'll find ten tunes on this album. All of the music adds up to one more stellar effort to capture the distinctive, emotionally satisfying and exciting nature of one of our most expressive musical forms: the big band. "Metropole" does the genre proud. As any aficionado will tell you, listening to a dynamic, energetic, tight big band live, on-stage, and in-your-face is one of the most remarkable musical experiences you might have. Now, if Mike and guys could just take it on the road for a few months...