Review by Brad Walseth
Teo Macero's name should be quite familiar to jazz fans from his work as producer/music director for some of the greatest artists in jazz history. Macero's production work has graced recordings by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Leonard Bernstein and many, many more. His credits are too numerous to list, but include such landmark sessions as: Brubeck's Take Five; Monk's Straight, No Chaser, and Monk's Dream; Mingus Ah Um; and First Time! The Count (Basie) Meets the Duke; and much of Miles Davis' catalog, including: Round About Midnight, Someday My Prince Will Come, Bitches Brew, Sketches of Spain, In A Silent Way, Pangaea and Tribute to Jack Johnson. Not only perhaps the most famous producer in jazz, Macero is also a performer and a composer of note who has started his own label called Teomusic to release his impressive output of incredibly strong and varied compositions.
Macero's excellent latest release is called "NYU Jazz Orchestra Plays the Music of Teo Macero" and from the opening bursts of "Two Steps from Hell" it is clear that this is not your grandparents' big band music, but rather an exciting and powerful new direction taken in utilizing the colors and sounds of a big band ensemble. Explosive playing and sudden, seamless, and surprising shifts of time signature and style highlight the opening track (arrangement by Rich Shemaria), with soloists Keith Loftis on tenor sax and special guest - Russian jazz prodigy Alex Sipiagin on trumpet turning up the heat, while energetic drummer Will Terrill pushes them on. The sweeping romantic melodicism of the Teo original ballad "Yellow Roses and a Pink Red Rose" comes next and proves that the composer is equally at home in all ranges of emotion. Sipiagin again shines, as does NYU Jazz Studies Director Dr. David Schroeder on the soprano saxophone.
"21 B Baker Street" follows and is a delightful uptempo romp featuring noteworthy guitar by Mike MacAllister, some slippery trombone work by Brendan Hogan, alto sax by James Antonucci, and sensational scatting by Heidi Krenn. The arrangement (again by Shemaria) is picturesque and reminds one why Teo's music is so suitable for film scores, as it creates a jaunty image of adventurous fun. "Colliding Stars" rises into the Milky Way beautifully with swirling horns, and again features MacAllister's sensitive guitar work over a lilting 6/8. Special credit should also go to arranger Gil Goldstein for his tasteful work.
"Slow and Easy" features the weeping, mocking, muted trumpet of Alex Sipiagin; while perhaps the centerpiece of the album - the incredible, high-powered "In Walked Duke," pays tribute to the master, Duke Ellington, in way that is respectful, but not slavish in devotion. This is a wonderful song, and one that should be entered into the modern big band repetoire as the classic it is. Krenn's take on the clever lyrics is memorable, Shemaria's arrangement tasty, and the Duke-ish horns unforgettable. As throughout, drummer Terill along with bassist Scott Hornick and pianist George Dulin provide the groove, while the horn sections provide the spark that fires the engine. John Gunther's alto and Sipiagin trumpet (again!) are great examples of playing a solo that works both as individual virtuosity as well as serving the song by working inside the arrangement.
"To a Swan" is a lovely slow number that allows pianist Dulin (and a muted Sipiagin) a sweet turn in the spotlight, while the powerhouse "They Call Him Doctor Jazz" gives Dulin, Loftis, Sipiagin and Geoff Countryman on baritone sax ample room to show their mettle over a stunningly muscular Maceo arrangement. The album closes too soon with the bluesy blow-out, "I Want Your Brain" featuring Gunther again on alto, along with Alex Heitlinger on smooth trombone and Ron Jones on swinging tenor. That the solos throughout are so compact, yet say so much, is a testament not only to the players themselves, but also to the fine NYU program, as well as to the producer and arrangers who set the stage for their students so well.
Big bands have seemingly gone by the wayside, save for the college programs and a few touring nostalgia acts. The small combo in jazz has for many reasons (some understandably financial in nature) largely taken the place of the big bands, and this has unfortunately led to a sameness of sound throughout the industry as well as a sometimes poisonous, often detrimental desire for soloists to become stars in their own right at the expense of the overall sound. The advanced arrangements of Duke, Mingus, Henderson, Basie, Whiteman, Gershwin (and of course the modern classical composers like Shostokovich, Stravinsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Bernstein, Berlioz, Copland, and Ravel) used the various textures and tones to paint a picture on a vast canvass of sound. Solos functioned within the context of the song itself - often as melodic counterpoint to bursts of tones generated by a horn section that was itself punctuating and enhancing a rhythmic (or polyrhythmic) drive. Other sections and players added in harmonic colors and the end effect was a "whole" arrangement. In many ways, just as rap has stripped down rock, blues and R&B to basics, the small combo/star-turns by soloists in jazz have lessened the available colors of the musical palette. Almost, as in the Dark Ages, when melody was banned and Gregorian Chants were the order of the day, musicians today often seem to be playing if not in unison, at least by themselves in indivdual solos taking place simultaneously: The art of harmony seems to have been lost or least diminished in importance, and we are all the poorer for it.
Thank goodness then for Teo Macero. Teo is not only still writing music that recalls the great jazz and classical composers, while advancing new directions and a belief in the modern big band sound, but he is writing better than ever. Call him Dr. Jazz, indeed!
Teo and the NYU Jazz Orchestra are already hard at work on the follow up to this effort, and we can't wait!
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