Although reedman and bandleader Dick Johnson has been around big bands for fifty years, it wasn’t until February of 2006 that he finally embarked on a full big band recording of his own. The result is Johnson’s latest CD release, Star Dust & Beyond: A Tribute to Artie Shaw, and it’s available now. With Star Dust & Beyond, Johnson and this 17-piece band stake their claim to “Big Band Recording of the Year.”
Johnson, whose career stretches back to the late 1940s, learned his craft in the bands of Charlie Spivak, Buddy Morrow and Herb Pomeroy. His small groups have recorded for Mercury, Riverside and Concord Jazz. He’s a mainstay of New England jazz, but today he might be best known as the leader of The Artie Shaw Orchestra, a position he’s held since 1983, when Shaw himself picked Dick to lead the reorganized band.
The spirit of the recording is embodied in its name. Star Dust & Beyond is Dick’s heartfelt tribute to Shaw, his lifelong musical inspiration. But if you’re thinking that this music will be just another trip down memory lane, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. There are 14 tunes here featuring fresh arrangements by Jay Brandford and Grammy winner Robert Freedman. The selections range from Shaw-era standards (“My Funny Valentine,” “I Concentrate on You,” “Star Dust”) to Johnson originals to a few numbers not often found in a big band’s book, like “Waltz for Debby” and “Fungii Mama.” This might be a tribute recording, but there is no doubt Johnson is his own man and the band has a personality all its own.
Dick Johnson’s clarinet is outstanding throughout, and the rest of the band shines as well. It includes Dave Chapman, Sil D’Urbano, Matt Koza, Ed Harlow, and Wendy Macdonald in the reed section; Jay Daly, Trent Austin, Phil Person, and Kerry MacKillop on trumpets; Doug Elliott, Chris Oberholtzer, Chris Dempsey, and Leslie Havens on trombones; and a rhythm section with Paul Odeh, piano; John Wheatley, guitar; Bronek Suchanek, bass; and Mark Holovnia, drums. Lou Colombo takes a star turn with the trumpet solo on “Star Dust.”