Manhattan Brass

Manhattan Holiday

With the approaching Holiday season one is certainly going to hear brass quintets performing our favorite selections in both live and recorded formats. However, every now and then a group will standout to point that one must dig deeper to find out more information about the group and its players. The dynamic brass quintet called Manhattan Brass is just one of those groups that contain excellent arrangements played with beauty, clarity, accuracy, balance and full of interaction. Manhattan Holiday is the latest recording from Manhattan Brass; a compilation of classic and lesser-known holiday selections, all creatively arranged by Carla Bley and Jack Walrath.

Manhattan Brass is made up of some of New York’s finest brass players that are gifted with technique and musicianship; Wayne du Maine on trumpet, Lew Soloff on trumpet, RJ Kelley on french horn (tracks # 2, 3, 4, 10), Michael Seltzer on trombone, David Taylor on bass trombone and Ann Ellsworth - french horn (tracks # 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11). Individually and collectively they provide a unique sound that captures New York’s energy and style during the Holidays. The styles conveyed on Manhattan Holiday are as varied as the multicultural sights and sounds of the city itself; reggae, classical, gospel, straight ahead jazz, calypso, Italian waltz and classic ballads. Manhattan Holiday was recorded over a four year period (with two different french horn players) from 2008-11 with the quintet enlisting the creative arranging skills of Jack Walrath - arrangements on tracks # 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 and Carla Bley - arrangements on Tracks #1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11.

Soloff describes how the concept for the project got started while doing a big band tour with long-time friend and colleague Carla Bley. “She had two or three of the charts and asked some of us to play them for her. I loved them and later asked if we could use them to record and she said yes. We needed more material to fill a CD; something not to be taken lightly, as there are so many holiday offerings. If we did a holiday recording, it’d need to be outstanding...special; we’d want it to be something like this.”

Taylor introduced the quintet to Jack Walrath. In the past, Walrath had written many arrangements for Taylor and knew both Taylor and Soloff for years. Walrath is a trumpeter and band leader that ultimately contributed five really creative and interesting charts to the project; some innovative twists on the classics and a few obscure “new” classics too. Walrath’s arrangements complement Bley’s charts perfectly and between the two, the whole project has a very unified sound that is easily conveyed by the quintet’s ability to control pitch and balance and their musical understanding of the pieces.

Opening with Bley’s gospel tinged arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The quintet instantly displays their command of creating musical depth with the various counterpoint and harmony lines. The melody is stated with a “wah wah” style with the plunger over lush chords and then effortlessly falls into a gospel feel for the trumpet solo. With Taylor’s bass bone keeping the bottom line moving the middle ground it is filled with tight moving harmonic figures that create a wonderful fill for the soloist. Seltzer’s trombone solo and plunger work is superb. The ensembles phrasing is impeccable during the closing statement, with wonderful use of space that is played naturally and with precision.

Walrath’s playful arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” borrows from the harmonic movement and feel of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.” The calypso feel is released with a wonderfully voiced “classical” section for the B section. Again, the trumpet work is excellent, unfortunately the printed material with the CD did not indicate when Soloff or du Maine were the featured soloist, but the trumpet solos throughout the project are always fun and of the highest musicality. Seltzer delivers another fine trombone solo and we get to hear the upper register work of Taylor’s bass bone.

Bley’s haunting arrangement of “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen” contains beautiful harmony and colored voicings, very Gil Evans in color and intervallic construction. The arrangement allows everyone ample solo space over the slow-med waltz feel. The counterpoint is always clear in the ensemble and the balance of the chords and various layers are always top shelf. This is the type of sound only achieved by a virtuoso group of musicians that has played as an ensemble for a long.

Manhattan Holiday is a holiday CD with astounding virtuosity and wonderful purity of tone that elevates the Holiday repertoire with creative arrangements to a level that is a joy to the musical senses. Manhattan Brass has the ability to inspire a passion for Holiday music that is more than just filler music, but it is truly high artistry.

Personnel: Wayne du Maine – trumpet; Lew Soloff – trumpet; RJ Kelley – horn; Michael Seltzer – trombone; David Taylor - bass trombone; Ann Ellsworth – horn.

Arrangements: Jack Walrath - arrangements (Tracks # 2, 3, 4, 5, 10); Carla Bley - arrangements (Tracks #1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11).

Tracks: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, A Merrier Christmas, Stuffy Turkey, Siciliana {from Ancient Airs and Dances for piano, Set 1}, The Christmas Song, O Tannenbaum, Jingle Bells, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, Lil Drummer Dude, Joy To The World.

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H. Allen Williams