There’s nothing like a regular residency to hone the playing of a big band and give such an ensemble—always a challenge just to keep gigging—a chance to routinely introduce, air out, and tweak arrangements. Steven Feifke’s group benefited from just such an opportunity during nearly two years’ worth of monthly performances at the Django in New York, an engagement that ended only with the pandemic-forced shutdowns.
The post-cancellation payoff has arrived with pianist Feifke’s debut big-band release, an impressively varied set of music featuring top-rank NYC players roaring on compositions and arrangements that occasionally bring to mind jazz orchestras of yore, including the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, but also point to a fast-developing talent who’s bringing fresh ideas to the genre.
“Kinetic” makes for a revved-up opener, with four brass blasts sparking a round of piano soloing before the piece begins in earnest. Call-and-response figures are followed by Feifke’s extended improvisation, multiple ensemble charges, and engaging turns by trumpeter Gabriel King Medd and Ulysses Owens Jr., one of four drummers who variously kick this band in all the right places.
The pace changes with the snaking rhythms and volleying lines of “The Sphinx,” a showcase for tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino; the bluesy “Wollongong,” which hints at screen scores of the ’70s; a lush, refried take on Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”; and Alexa Tarantino’s slippery alto romp on the funk-edged “Midnight Beat,” which feels like a catchy theme song for an imaginary action-TV series.
All that and a pair of laidback vocal tracks too, as Veronica Swift’s singing aptly matches the ensemble and Andrew Gould’s soaring alto on “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and a majestic, Broadway-big “On the Street Where You Live,” livened by solos from trombonist Robert Edwards and bari saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas.