Fresh Heat-- The Jens Wendelboe Big Band

There continues to be a slow but steady stream of new releases by big bands, although the few that are actual working bands are lucky to land anything better than once a week or once a month gigs, or a rare concert date. The talented arranger, composer, and trombonist Jens Wendelboe's new Fresh Heat CD is a follow-up to his 2010 Inspirations, and features the identical 16-piece orchestra. The Norwegian-born Wendelboe, who has lived in the U.S. for the past ten years, cites "everyone from Rimsky-Korsakov to George Martin to Thad Jones, Neal Hefti and Bob Brookmeyer" as arranging influences, but he grew up listening to groups such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and Tower of Power. In fact, he has played trombone with Blood Sweat & Tears since 2006, and was once Donna Summer's musical director. The music on Fresh Heat is essentially mainstream big band fare, but with an exuberant vitality perhaps derived from Wendelboe's non-jazz leanings, and certainly aided by his proficient arranging and composing.

The first three Wendelboe arrangements on Fresh Heat were originally commissioned by the acclaimed Westchester Jazz Orchestra. Deb Lyons initially scats the theme of Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" with backing ensemble voicings, before launching into Jon Hendricks' lyrics with silky-toned gusto. Vinnie Cutro's swirling trumpet solo, and Joey Berkley's churning tenor improv are followed by the orchestra in full flight playing intricate passages, before Lyons joins in for the energizing reprise. The leader's own "No Mercy" has an insinuating "Peter Gunn Theme"-like rhythm generated by electric bassist David Anderson, and quotes from Blood Sweat & Tears memorable "Spinning Wheel." A fiery Steve Jankowski trumpet solo, and a more pungent one from trombonist Wendelboe help make this an enjoyable ride all the way. Tenor saxophonist Mark Feinberg executes the theme of Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus" with a sound similar to the composer's, as the orchestra provides punctuations both sinuous and brash. Feinberg's solo is urgently communicative, and Rob Paparozzi's appealing harmonica jaunt is warmly lyrical. The arrangement overall is successfully textured to bring to the fore the core beauty of Henderson's creation.

Lyons sings "My Funny Valentine" with grace and unerring, and at times, soaring articulation. The emphatic colorations of the saxes and brass show the influences of Brookmeyer, Jones, and even Gil Evans. Jankowski's exciting muted trumpet weaves in and out improvisationally, and Tom Timko's soprano pierces through briefly, but impactfully, as well. Wendelboe's arrangement of Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace" won an award from Italy's Barga Jazz competition. After Wendelboe delivers the theme with subtle feeling, there appears an exhilarating orchestration of pianist Bill Evans' spirited recorded solo on the tune, and then Anderson's electric bass solo evokes Swallow's own improv with Gary Burton. Ken Gioffre's burly tenor statement also elevates the track. Swallow himself has commented: "It's warming to hear my tune treated with such care."

Wendelboe plays the theme of his own spirited, swaggering "What a Trip," and his solo is fittingly down-to-earth and swinging. The unison ensemble portions are seamless, and build robustly on the melody. Bob Millikan's invigorating trumpet exploration leads back to a rocking finale. "Nix Vogel" is dedicated to the late drummer Ole Jacob Hansen. Bill Heller's ringing synthesizer enriches the pensive theme exposition by Feinberg's tenor. The orchestra's entry signals a drastic change in tempo and urgency, as the sections race through their parts with sparkling animation. Whirlwind solos from altoist Michael Migliore and trumpeter Chris Rogers transpire, with the band in persistently rousing support.

"Suite to Bjorn" was a winner of an award from the Norwegian Popular Composers Union (NOPA), and is Wendelboe's tribute to Bjorn Kruse, one of his music teachers in Norway. Migliore's alto interprets the entrancing melody before the full band comes storming in with uplifting thematic elaborations. Migliore's driving solo, Heller's prancing electric piano spot, and Timko's towering soprano precede the band's free form interlude and an adamant drum solo by Lee Finkelstein. The closing part of the suite highlights Timko's probing, propulsive improv, stimulated by Anderson's bass, Heller's synth, Finkelstein's drums, and, of course, Wendelboe's ceaselessly inventive writing for his big band.

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Scott Albin