Pop-Culture Blues
The Michael Treni Big Band

Trombonist, composer, arranger, educator, and technology company founder Michael Treni wears many hats, but his core passion seems to be big band jazz. Pop-Culture Blues is the fifth laudable CD that Treni has released through his own Bell Production Company, and contains a 10-movement blues suite featuring Treni compositions and arrangements that skillfully reflect and elaborate upon the styles of a number of jazz luminaries, from Ellington, Basie, and Mingus, to Coltrane and the Brecker Brothers. Treni's Big Band performs his diverse blues structures in engaged and engaging fashion, with a core group of musicians back from his previous two albums (Turnaround and Boy's Night Out), including saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and Frank Elmo, trumpeter Vinnie Cutro, pianist Charles Blenzig, and drummer Ron Vincent. As for the title, Pop-Culture Blues, Treni explains: "The title isn't exactly a commentary, but a lot of artists and musicians don't want to know the accomplishments of the past. I don't have a problem with people doing their own thing, but not with ignoring the craft."

"One for Duke" is a boisterous 12-bar atonal blues inspired by Ellington, with a theme that runs polytonally through four keys. Jim Ridl's piano solo easefully but absorbingly responds to this framework, while Bergonzi's tenor darts, sways, and churns with restless invention. Vincent's drums reverberate during a powerful orchestral section before the alluring theme returns. Treni's tribute to the Count Basie band, "BQE Blues," possesses the Count's trademark relaxed vibe with a dash of R&B flavor for good measure. This buoyant 16-bar blues is elevated by a storytelling, irresistible tenor solo from Elmo, and trumpeter Chris Persad's tart and refined improv. The ensemble passages are harmonically rich and inviting. "Minor Blues" is a 12-bar minor blues that takes its cue from Charles Mingus in its earthiness. The theme's orchestration has a swagger and authoritative expressiveness. Treni's trombone solo displays his lush sound and assured feel for the blues. Blenzig's piano spot rings out emphatically, and Persad's diversion is characteristically unhurried and creative in its development, peaking zestfully over the band's soaring riffs as the piece comes to a sudden stop.

The 12-bar "Bluesy Bossa" draws from Lee Morgan and the Blue Note sound of the '60's. The theme as played by flutes and clarinets has a light Latin "Sidewinder" bent, and Craig Yarmeko's fluent flute solo is a treat. Treni is lyrically compelling in his improv, and trumpeter Cutro follows, sailing in the upper register. "More Than 12 Blues," is a "major 7th or Bop blues" patterned after Gerry Mulligan and "Cool" jazz. Roy Nicolosi's baritone fittingly plays the perky theme before weaving in and out of the full band's assessments of the same melody. Bassist Takashi Otsuka offers a flavorful and vibrant solo, succeeded by Sal Spicola's commanding boppish exploration on alto. After a deft and joyful orchestral interlude, Nicolosi provides a concise summation. "Summer Blues" is an out-of-the-ordinary 14-bar modal/minor blues inspired by John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson, the latter's influence most noticeable in the clarity of the arrangement. The subtle melody gets under your skin, while Bergonzi's questing solo more blatantly captures one's attention. Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix mixes explosive bursts with more lustrous constructions in his statement, and Bergonzi has another stirring outpouring prior to the band's stimulating recap.

"Blues in Triplicate" is a 24-bar blues in 3/4 time that grows out of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter's music and Gil Evans' orchestrations. Flutes and clarinets are again dominant within this richly textured piece, in harmonious tandem with trumpets and Ridl's piano. Ken Hitchcock's alto flute solo is expertly intoned and delineated, Bergonzi's soprano flight biting and swirling, and Hendrix' final exploration
well-rounded and varied in its attack. The band's concluding written segment is Evans-like in its colorations and refinement, topped by Bergonzi's reflective out chorus. Treni's salute to the Brecker Brothers, "Mr. Funky Blues," is a 12-bar kind featuring Bob Ferrel improvising strongly on the Buccin trombone, a serpent or dragon-headed instrument used by French military bands in the 18th century. The definitely funky theme is intricate in its harmonic seasonings, and Elmo's tenor also burns brightly, but pulsating rhythms and enticing riffs and motifs are perhaps the true stars of this concoction. Treni attributes the 24-bar "Smokin' Blues," based on Pentatonic and augmented scales, to the example set by McCoy Tyner. From the gospel-like overtones in Ridl's resounding intro, he and the orchestra then come together for the swirling, energetic theme. The pianist's driving solo is propelled just by the persistent Otsuka and Vincent until ensemble phrasings at its culmination. Bergonzi maintains the sizzling pace in his possessed, take-no-prisoners romp, and the total assemblage's exciting finale gives way to Ridl's arpeggio-laden, trickling coda.

The closing "Pop-Culture Blues" is stylistically neutral, the theme and riff being essentially mainstream big band fare. Hitchcock's rambunctious tenor, Cutro's cutting trumpet, Blenzig's flowing piano, and lastly Vincent's forceful drums all cavort amid Treni's harmonically substantial and attractive orchestration.

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Scott Albin