Like doo-wop, trad-jazz or rockabilly, big-band jazz is so closely associated with a bygone era that any musician testing its waters must find a way to transcend retro or just give in and drag out the charts from the swing era. Trombonist Michael Dease, on his debut big-band effort, transcends.
One way the bandleader-who’s led smaller combos and served as a prolific sideman-achieves that is by recruiting a stellar cast of contemporary players, each comfortable enough to comprise five percent of a team but also capable of stepping up to deliver a minute or two of compelling, bracing soloing. In addition to Dease, the band consists of five other trombonists (plus two others, including Wycliffe Gordon, guesting); five saxophonists (and another on a single track); seven trumpeters and a crack rhythm section: pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and Gwendolyn Burgett on percussion.
Dease is a dexterous traffic cop who knows precisely when to keep the ensemble swinging en masse and when to invite one of his chosen crewmembers to let go and blow. But the greater task at hand, at which arranger Dease and producer Marc Free excel, is how to shape the sound of a battery of horns to appeal to a modern audience. They do so by stressing the rich melodicism built into the compositions while allowing the musicians to go to town manipulating trickier rhythms and taking edgier solo turns.
“Two Bass Hit” eschews the angularity of both Miles’ and Dizzy’s interpretations but is in its own way even wilder. Randy Brecker’s “Roppongi” (with guest guitarist Andrew Swift) has more in common with Tower of Power than anything the classic big bands might’ve conjured. Of Dease’s own compositions, the title track’s loping airiness and the hard-bop intensity of “The Takeover” ensure that no one will ever confuse Relentless with a lost Glenn Miller session.