Review by Brad Walseth
Young listeners may not be aware of the legacy of Louie Bellson, of whom Duke Ellington called - "not only the world's greatest drummer - he is the world's greatest musician," but most drummers are quite familiar with his legendary accomplishments. Starting on the drums at a mere three years old, he became, at age 15, the first drummer to play with a double-bass drum set, and two years later was the winner (over 40,000 drummers) of the Gene Krupa drumming contest. His reputation as a talent was confirmed on more than 200 albums with people like Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn, Benny Goodman and Bellson's late wife Pearl Bailey, winning numerous awards while also maintaining a reputation as one the truly nicest guys in the business. Bellson is also accomplished as a composer and his original works make up the "Louie & Clark Expedition 2."
The Clark of the title is trumpeter Clark Terry, the veteran of over 300 recordings with a pantheon of jazz notables, such as Max Roach, Wes Montgomery, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey, Jimmy Heath, Oscar Peterson, Phil Woods, and recently, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Both of the titular artists are now in their 80s and still playing and recording, a testament both to their talent and the wonderful nature of Jazz, which allows players to age gracefully.
This recording features a 17-piece big band with two additional drummers (Kenny Washington and Sylvia Cuenca) performing big band music arranged primarily by former Tonight Show band arranger the late Tommy Newsom. Newsom unfortunately passed away before the album was recorded, so three additional arrangers and Bellson himself filled in. "The Chicago Suite" opens things up with a Duke Ellington-inspired 4 part musical delight that references the song, "Chicago" and swings its way right down State Street and back up Lake Shore Drive (driven by the drummers and bassist Marcus McLaurine section augmented by Stantawn Kendrick's skittering soprano sax), and clearly show the love Bellson has for this great city. Steve Guerra produces a chewy tenor solo, while Stjepko Gut's lyrical trumpet shimmers on the "City of Seasons" section and growls gleefully through his mute on "The Blues Singer." For those who remember the monochrome Newsom as the butt of Johnny Carson and the flashier Doc Severson's jokes, this particular suite is an especially excellent tribute to the talent of the late arranger.
For those who like their big band music somnolent and coma-inducing, they will need to look elsewhere, because although there are some lovely quiet moments, this music for the most part swings hard and in enjoyable directions. Terry shows the master's touch on the walking "Davenport Blues," while Bellson shares the solo spotlight with the two younger drummers on "Two Guys and a Gal" and shows he still has the chops and energy to take on the most physical instrument in the band. Baritone saxophonist takes center stage on the Latin "Piacere," and calls to mind the question as to why this worthy instrument (indeed big band music in general) seems to going the way of the polar bear. Meanwhile, a heartfelt nod of appreciation must go to pianist Helen Sung, as well as to the entire horn section who play together beautifully.
For fans both of Duke Ellington style big band music, as well as the stylings of the Tonight Show big band, this recording will be a must, and a reminder of the days when this type of music actually was played on television. For the rest of Jazz fans, this album is a chance to connect with an almost extinct brand of Jazz, and with some exceptional players both young and old.