JazzTimes Review: Strength in Numbers

By Scott Albin, 07/08/14

Strength In Numbers– The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra

Pete McGuinness - Strength in Numbers

After Pete McGuinness’ last album, Voice Like a Horn, showcased the trombonist, composer, and arranger’s Chet Baker-styled vocals, he returns for the second time on CD to the jazz orchestra he formed back in 2006. McGuinness studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and has performed in big bands such as those led by Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and Maria Schneider, but while Brookmeyer is a main influence, his arrangements are wide-ranging in terms of intent and impact. He has been fortunate to retain nearly intact over the years the musicians in his New York-based orchestra, enabling him to write charts with their sounds and personalities in mind, and many of the selections on this recording have been refined and enriched through their repeated performance. McGuinness earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for his arrangement of “Smile” from the First Flight big band album, and it would be no surprise if certain tracks from Strength In Numbers receive Grammy consideration as well.

“The Send-Off” is dedicated to the memory of Brookmeyer, and a rich interweaving of brass and saxes leads to a theme made up of several separated motifs in the distinctive style of McGuinness’ teacher. Tom Christensen’s probing post bop tenor solo is bolstered by Mike Holober’s strong chords and the sympathetic prodding of Scott Neumann’s drums, eventually evolving into an isolated tenor-drums confrontation. A dramatic pause brings on an intricately orchestrated section and finally Neumann’s serpentine improvising over the band’s reiteration of the thematic material. Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” is given a heartwarming silky intro by the ensemble, and its freshly formulated treatment of the familiar theme in a waltzing mode sets up the enchanting glow of McGuinness’ singing. Andy Eulau’s bass solo also accentuates the appeal of an arrangement that makes full and winning use of the flutes of Dave Pietro, Marc Phaneuf, and Christensen. The radiant harmonies of substance for the prelude to “Trixie’s Little Girl” (for McGuinness’ late mother), precede the leader’s trombone lovingly intoning his ballad melody, as the band’s answering fills provide entrancing texture. McGuinness’ nimbly expressive and assertive solo is followed by Holober’s more reflective musings, with additional productive commentary from the full orchestra. The trombonist’s appealing reprise and coda cap this masterful chart and its polished execution.

“The Swagger” is a bluesy piece reminiscent of Thad Jones’ writing manner in the spirited call-and-response between sections, and it inspires deeply soulful statements from Dave Reikenberg on baritone and Jeff Nelson on bass trombone, succeeded by the contrasting upper register bite of Phaneuf’s alto. “Beautiful Dreamer” was first commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra led by Holober, and here McGuinness reinvents Stephen Foster’s enduring work once again as an animated samba. The robustly undulating orchestration, Pietro’s inviting soprano sax on both the theme and in his sparkling solo, Holober’s delectable mood-swinging exploration, and the concluding charm of Pietro and Holober’s duet based on Foster’s original 1865 arrangement, all serve to make this a memorable track. The Latin cha-cha rhythms and the pleasurable theme combine to draw the listener into the many swaying legato attractions of “Spellbound.” Saxophonist Jason Rigby’s progressive improv and Chris Rogers’ muted trumpet lyricism are amply supported by the contrapuntal pronouncements of the band, in an arrangement motivated by both Debussy and Billy Strayhorn.

For “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a sparse metronomic piano / bass opening gives way to the clarion calls of the horns, and then McGuinness’ openhearted, unassuming singing of the lyrics in a way remindful of both Chet Baker and Mel Tormé. Complex orchestral passages are followed by (and proceed during) Bruce Eidem’s guttural plunger-mute trombone essay, McGuinness fulfilling scatted vocal, and finally Eulau’s melodic solo. McGuinness’ second verbal go around on the theme is even more endearing than his first. “Nasty Blues” is a nod to the writers for Count Basie. Holober swings lightly before the darting blues head is heartily delivered in unison by the saxes. A series of solos finds Pietro wailing with boppish fervor on alto, trombonists Mark Patterson and Matt Haviland conversing engagingly, and trumpeter Bill Mobley cavorting both tartly and sweetly. The entire band moves from stimulating background to shouting forefront prior to the reprise. McGuinness composed “Bittersweet” back in the ’90’s as a feature for his own trombone, and it begins with Holober’s fanciful circular motifs until the orchestra swells to life with variations on the same. The bandleader’s trombone defines the central theme and expands upon it with passion and surefooted technique. Holober’s lushly meditative solo is the bridge to the perpetual motion of the band’s finely delineated recap.

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