What began as a swing dance band in 2005 has evolved into a jazz ensemble capable of nailing the demands of a sophisticated musical arranger while maintaining a sense of unselfconscious swing and delightfully free improvisations.
With “Trilby” The Rick Holland -- Evan Dobbins Little Big Band comes to play. The commercial/aesthetic duality of a jazz band’s life is as old as the music itself, yet for listeners looking to hear musicians challenge themselves, and be taken along into music for music’s sake; records like this are the nut.
But they are not possible without the alert, interactive, conversational, groove driving enthusiasm and carefully controlled dynamic range of a drummer such as Rich Thompson, the last drummer to swing the Count Basie Orchestra. For all the challenging writing, brilliant soloing, and as-one ensemble playing earned by appearing regularly together, The Little Big Band’s unity of style owes everything to that grown up, play-or-die-trying rhythm.
Brent Wallarab dresses up Benny Golson’s jazz standard “Stablemates” with a tasteful variety of ensemble colors wed to re-harmonization and extension of a few melodic lines. The effect creates a great setting for the flowing improvisation of our principle soloist, Rick Holland, and alto saxophonist Doug Stone (no hiding Thompson, either, given the piece’s underlying tension and release as the vamp comes and goes). Dig the way the two horn soloists are brought back for a “curtain call” near the end of the piece and how the soloists eventually overlap.
Rick Holland’s flugelhorn improvisations throughout the recording flow with a seasoned musician’s imagination and a hard working trumpeter’s ability to play whatever comes to mind. His piquant touches to the top of the staff (or above) from wherever he happens to be in the improvised melodic line are a great example of where daily practice can take you. His sound is attractive, in fact the sonority he gets from the flugelhorn is an essential component of the group’s impact, and his love of Chet Baker’s melodic invention is completely internalized. Holland’s ability to improvise melodically from his imagination, as opposed to fitting memorized patterns of notes into the chord, is worth careful listening. That’s the way it’s done, folks.
Two central personalities in the Rick Holland -- Evan Dobbins Little Big Band are featured on Hendrik Meurkens composition, “Slidin’”: pianist/arranger Bill Dobbins of the Eastman School of Music, and his trombone playing son, Evan. A clear, classically trained and personal sounding jazz pianist, Bill Dobbins is one of jazz education’s major contributors and a keeper of the jazz arranger’s flame. His love of “lyrical melodies, counterpoint, chromatic harmony, syncopated and complex rhythms and compelling development of whatever musical material [is at hand]…” guides this recording.
Bill Dobbins says of Rick Holland, “The broad repertoire his groups encompass and the care with which he deals with musical details are a welcome exception in this age of super specialization and an obsession with quick results at the expense of real quality.”
Notice Dobbins’s piano solo on “Slidin’” begins with the march figure that eventually shows up played by the ensemble in the second part of this arrangement. The licks and instrumental voicing in the melodic line and swing of the march are a high level reflection on Thad Jones’s influence. Evan Dobbins is a chip off the old block and a major addition to the band’s repertoire of involved soloists. It’s refreshing to hear an essentially bop oriented trombone player sound like himself.
One of many great moments on the album occurs in the contrapuntal interplay between piano and flugelhorn on “The Cottage,” a form which brilliantly employs the full range of the ensemble, from the unaccompanied duo to a shouting chorus at the big band end of the spectrum dropping suddenly down to David Baron’s bass solo. Utilizing the full palette of instrumental colors and dynamics, Bill Dobbins fashions a classic bop showpiece out of Meurkens’s original.
Notice, too, the multi-linear interplay between the trio of flugelhorn, piano and soprano saxophone on “While We’re Young,” a true high wire act, and soon a variety of trios or duos breaking out across the recording come into relief. This “singing without independent instrumental accompaniment" in counterpoint improvisation is a key element of the Little Big Band’s appeal. Everywhere you turn in this hour of music, variety of instrumental texture is maximized, and even on the most “blowing” of the compositions the solos don’t stand alone but contribute parts of a larger whole.
Sonny Stitt’s “Eternal Triangle” is the eternal blowing tune, a variation on “I Got Rhythm” that in Kerry Strayer’s arrangement juxtaposes the high, bright colors of the woodwinds against the trombones and uses an ascending shout figure to send off Holland on flugelhorn and Mike Pendowski on tenor saxophone into uncompromising solos, all underscored by Rich Thompson’s musical accompaniment.
Bill Dobbins sounds comfortable as a soloist in "Trilby," Brent Wallarab’s straight eighth note Latin contrafact of “Alone Together.” A beautiful showcase for the rhythm section in just the right tempo the title track is highlighted by the interplay of the pianist, bassist and drummer with the horn soloists. The rhythm section spreads out, filling up the sound space and building steadily behind Holland, soprano saxophonist Doug Stone and eventually climaxing in Dobbins ringing block chords. The mellow ensemble vibe insists “Trilby” maintain its quiet intensity.
Duke Ellington’s ability to disguise the written and spontaneous inspired generations of arrangers, and that tradition is elaborated on beautifully in Bill Dobbin’s colorful version of Hendrik Meurken’s “Second Waltz,” including Doug Stone’s pure clarinet tones and Nick Finzer’s double time moves on trombone. The ensemble colors supporting Holland’s flugelhorn solo create a perfect setting, and see if you’re knocked out by the simultaneous improvising which ends the piece.
If you mashed up parts of Joe Henderson’s “Isotope” and Sonny Rollins “St. Thomas” it might come out sounding like Hall Crook’s “Fused,” which may be one reason why Mike Pendowski’s tenor solo here is so sonic. The written section that follows the tenor saxophone solo paces the ensemble towards it’s most Mingus-like round of spontaneous improvisation among Evan Dobbins trombone, Pendowski’s tenor and the rocking your world drums of Rich Thompson, which must send the audiences in Rochester, New York, who are fortunate to hear this band live on a regular basis into fits of whistling appreciation.
Tadd Dameron, Gigi Gryce and even Quincy Jones arranged for mid-sized jazz bands back in the day, and you could imagine what they would have done with Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism.” Here Kerry Strayer paints with Bob Florence-like instrumental colors, showcasing a virtuoso turn by bassist David Baron, one of Dobbins most swinging piano solos, Rich Thompson’s dancing brushes, and some great unison playing from the Little Big Band. They take it out with “Rich’s Call,” a great closer with plenty of openings for Thompson in the first part, and an impassioned tenor saxophone solo over an insistent band in the second segment, and a saxophone-drum duo / drum solo in a third.
Musicians work a lifetime without the chance to meet the high musical standards possible in a fully realized jazz band. Fortunately for us, the listeners, the musicians in the Rick Holland -- Evan Dobbins Little Big Band haven’t settle for anything less.
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Blue Lake Public Radio