Tempest “Little Big Band”
One Saturday afternoon in April of 1997, nine Atlanta jazz musicians assembled outside a local watering hole, shuffling about, waiting for a rehearsal to begin. The joint was locked, the club owner was late, and we all knew that big bands were dead. When we finally sat down and began reading the charts, the cats perked up, the club owner got giggly, and we were on our way to nearly three years of weekly bookings. That Saturday afternoon was Tempest’s first and last rehearsal.
Jazz musicians hate to rehearse. They’re all about improvisation, not only when standing up to solo, but with music and life in general. It’s not so much a relish of potential disaster as it is an addiction to challenge. We incorporate tangible uncertainty into our gigs. Not a club date goes by when Tempest doesn’t play something with the ink still wet: new arrangements by noted local orchestrators. Invariably, we format tunes differently and spontaneously from gig to gig. It’s kind of an unspoken, “Hey, let’s find out in front of lots of people what happens when we try this.” It’s fun.
We’re a nine-piece big band featuring a vocalist, nurturing and maintaining the spirit and appeal of a quintet. This CD was a long time coming: our first recorded in a studio. Nothing here was played more than a handful of times prior to the session. Three arrangements were brand new to us.
Round Midnight is not meant to be a hard-core jazz album. It’s simply music we like—recorded in five hours on one hot Atlanta afternoon—showcasing a snap shot of the 150+ song repertoire now in Tempest’s book. We love to play the blues. “Captain Cheerio” is one of two sets’-worth of disparate blues tunes we could have chosen here. We enjoy playing black-tie affairs, hence, the more danceable fare of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Satin Doll,” and “Sway.” Tempest has a deep, abiding reverence for the jazz classics, so you’ll hear “Shiny Stockings,” “Caravan,” and “Thermo” performed as they were originally intended. We love it all and hope it shows.
“Captain Cheerio” is a blues shuffle taken at a brisker tempo than originally intended. Saxophonists love to glissando, probably because they generally believe they play everything better than any other instrumentalists (read: trombone envy), and here they have a shot at pure gliss….er, bliss. Haydon’s opening piano solo rings with purity of tone and resplendent ideas—attributes for which he’s well known. Lead trumpet Chapman is consistent and refined, reveling in the instrument’s difficult upper register. Lopes is king of inside-outside tenor playing, stretching from the upper altissmo to the guttural low end of the horn within a few notes. It’s wonderfully base. Not long ago, Funderburke seemed more student than pro, but now he’s the t-bone-ist and arranger about town—a gifted man with iron chops.
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is accomplished here as a rumba, a gentle treatment featuring Skelton’s vibrant alto in the lead. Arranger Pete McGuiness’ choice of harmonies illuminates the moodiness of the song’s libretto—a classic, melancholy tale of relenting love from the musical My Fair Lady. Funderburke never fails to pique interest while soloing on trombone, playing what might be called “dangerous notes” that skirt the boundaries of conventional harmonic choices. It’s tense yet humorous, resolving phrases late yet completely. Haydon is featured on piano, singly emphasizing the beauty of his chosen instrument.
“Caravan” only slightly expounds upon trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s classic version, transcribed here for nonet versus Hubbard’s original 1960s sextet. Of course, Duke Ellington provides the impetus, having first recorded the song in 1937. Atlanta-based trumpeter Walker pays tribute to Hubbard via his full, meaty tone and robust style. Difficult improvised passages spin effortlessly from his horn, with range and nuance presenting no problem whatsoever. Lopes again plumbs the depth and leverage of the tenor, summoning mystery and intrigue on the “A” sections, while offering piquant resolve at the bridge. Shaw’s rep as a leading jazz bassist is substantiated here as he aggressively maintains tempo while playing the choicest of notes.
“Hold Me” is a Latin ditty from the pen of the late Gerry Niewood, most remembered as early saxophone sideman to pop-geared flugelhornist Chuck Mangione. Growing up in Rochester, New York (Mangione’s home turf), I revered Niewood’s playing at a time when jazz first made its presence known to me on local radio. Funderburke’s tasty arrangement of cluster chords and muted brass works nicely as a backdrop for the lower resonances of the baritone saxophone. Niewood was a soulful influence, consistently creating positive emotion in ways I hope to reflect.
“I’ll Remember April” is a crafty chart alternating samba and swing feels. Skelton finally gets to blow on alto, and that he does. A virtuosic performer on all things woodwind, his improvised solos are off the cuff yet precise, surprising and logical—truly a man whose brain some day belongs pickled next to Einstein’s. Haydon swings hard when the occasion arises, with nary a glitch at uptempo. Of course, Gransden is the star of this tune, deftly spanning the throes of superb vocalist and trumpeter while hardly breaking a sweat. Gransden is modern-day cool defined.
“Round Midnight” is Kentucky-based arranger Scott Slocum’s tour de force. After hitting this series of low A’s on bari, I wondered aloud how bari player Stephen “Doc” Kupka does it night after night while choreographed on stage with Tower of Power. Lopes’ response was, “Yeah. How’d you like to live down there night after night?” I would not (but offer me the gig). A flag-waver of a song that every jazz artist of note has recorded differently, Slocum’s version puts Tempest through the paces for both tastefulness and aggression, culminating in a memorable solo for Gransden and ensemble playing of the highest order. We feel Monk would approve.
Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” taken at a slow tempo with minimal instrumentation, provides a diversion from the heightened dynamics indigenous to multiple horns. A singer who needs no rehearsing, Shakir was present at Tempest’s sole rehearsal those many years ago, and has been with us since. Her innate musicianship and improvisational skills—on voice and piano—have caused many a local jazz musician to head back to the woodshed to practice. Well…maybe not (we already discussed rehearsals), but Shakir’s skills as an impulsive bop singer are cause for her eminence here in the Deep South. Shaw’s warm, woody bass provides the foundation for a dynamic performance that builds, sustains, then ebbs—with Skelton’s powerful and intoxicating alto providing the instrumental centerpiece.
“Shiny Stockings” is a medium-up swinger readily identified with the Count Basie Orchestra. As that fact alone designates that this is nothing to mess with, we didn’t. It’s Basie all the way. Varnes helms the rhythm section—and the entire band—flawlessly and exquisitely throughout the proceedings. His drumming reflects a thoughtful, relaxed personality. Gransden lays back as only Gransden can. The man is such a remarkably individual compendium of the history of jazz trumpet, with special emphasis on West coast jazz rekindled. The contrasting full-band shout chorus at the end bespeaks the Basie/Kansas City imperative—showcasing the acoustic ferocity of the little big band.
“Thermo” was one of Freddie Hubbard’s lasting contributions to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—the epitome of hard bop bands. More than mere bashing, “Thermo” has one of the more intricate melodies to perform, done so here to perfection in alto/trumpet unison. Also demanding is the harmonic progression for blowing. Skelton and Walker thrive on difficulty, eating up these harmonies while exuding phrases of pure joy—delighting in the opportunity to revitalize a beguiling and worthy war horse.
“Sway” has been around for more than a half century, but was re-popularized by singer Michael Bublé. Funderburke’s arrangement is a showcase for Gransden’s more aggressive tendencies, and he rises to the occasion with a strong trumpet solo and forceful, energetic voice. This mambo is Mexican, but it’s difficult not to think of 1950s Cuba, where wealthy Americans came to drink exotic liquor while go-go dancing girls in illuminated cages dangling from trees danced wildly and crazily into the night. Okay, I’m not so sure about that, but can tell you that Señors Lopes and Skelton had their own choreography happening in the studio while resting eight bars. Safely said, they didn’t miss their calling.
Every now and then I have the pleasure of recording a truly top-notch group of players. There's something about the way they control their sounds that makes my job much easier. A friend of mine once said, "My engineering got a lot better when I started using good musicians," and it's so true. Tempest “Little Big Band” exemplifies that, and since great players are usually good guys, the whole CD was a pleasure and went smoothly and quickly. Ken Gregory, Recording Engineer
Special Thanks to God; to my loving wife Carlotta for always supporting us; to the cats in the band for hanging with it all these years; to my family for understanding the importance of music; to the arrangers for enabling Tempest to sound like a 16-piece big band; to my sister Mary for reading and listening; to lovers of jazz, especially our fans—past and future. Thank you!