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May 2009

Fat Cat Big Band
Meditations on the War for Whose Great God Is the Most High You Are God
Angels Praying for Freedom

Smalls

The Fat Cat Big Band didn’t earn its name from the stature of its members, but from its birthplace, New York’s Fat Cat club, which began originally as an extension of Smalls. Guitarist Jade Synstelien leads the 11-piece orchestra of relatively unknown young players (other than former vocalist Nellie McKay) and these two albums, recorded and released simultaneously, are packed with strong writing, lush arrangements, some humor and some political venting. While not all of these qualities work to their advantage, Synstelien and crew definitely know how a modern, innovative big band should sound.

If the lengthy title wasn’t enough of a clue, Meditations on the War … contains a good deal of politics in titles if not in the songs themselves. But what stands out immediately is the group’s fusing of modern harmonic direction with older big-band trappings. “Samantha Swing” kicks things off with Max Siegel blowing his bass trombone with a plunger mute. “Phil Stewart Figures Out Ofer Landsberg Playin’ Charlie Parker Blues” features six of the horns trading twos like a Jazz at the Philharmonic session. In “F*ck the Man (Please Vote),” Synstelien wears his politics and love of Mingus on his sleeve, attempting his own “Fables of Faubus.” Unfortunately he lifts some of the master’s own lyrics, which tries too hard, and he keeps yelling “Boo, George Bush,” which sounds a little dated post-Jan. 20. Best to hit the fast forward button and dig into the other tracks that also mine the Mingus vibe, like the title track.

Angels Praying for Freedom doesn’t possess the bile of its companion, except in a couple of titles, but the excitement carries over. The dreamy “I Do Know What Love Is” lives up to its title with full exploitation of the horn sections (three saxes, two trumpets, two trombones). “Fat Cat Theme” is a blistering version of large-scale bebop. Synstelien may be gifted as a writer and guitarist, but he shouldn’t sing. His nasal voice flattens the otherwise strong melody of “Unfulfillable Longing,” and the repetitive vocals of the faux-reggae of “The Thing That We Play to as It Goes By” gets less and less funny as it drags on. Overall, though, he and the band deserve high marks for adding to the legacy of big-band music rather than emulating the past glories of it.

Originally published in May 2009
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