And It Really Was…

And It Really Was

Brigham Phillips Big Band release And It Really Was is comprised of Torontos’ finest studio musicians including flugelhornist Guido Basso, saxophonist Mike Murley, and trombonist Alistair Kay.

The opening track The Foot’s Bay Boogie, a delightfully straight-ahead big-band romp steeped in the Sammy Nestico tradition and incorporating, as the liner notes point out, ‘all the big band clichés rolled into one tune’. Perhaps, but the band’s exceptional musicianship and Phillips’ creative deployment of the familiar arranger’s devices produces a wonderfully accessible yet musically sophisticated chart, and the players clearly had a great time with it. Based on the changes for ‘A’ Train, the Phillips original features brilliant section work (particularly the saxes, whose wonderfully intricate and flawlessly executed background riffs will leave you grinning) overlain with tight solos by Terry Promane on trombone, composer / leader Brigham Phillips on trumpet, and Mark Kelso on drums. Spectacular dynamics, beguiling Basie-inspired piano punctuation, and clever call-and-response between brass and reeds combine in a light but substantial and satisfying musical confection.

Another up tempo delight written by Phillips is the sixteen-bar shuffle Blowhead, an uncomplicated but infectious 16-bar riff tune which features the first of a couple of electric guitar solos on the disk. Guitarist Tony Zorzi adds an interesting accent to the otherwise fairly traditional jazz band lineup, and though his rock-inspired roots are clearly in evidence, his Setzer-esque solos are sympathetic complements to the jazz pur laine of the other players.

Flight East is an up tempo jazz waltz, alternately gentle and assertive, which provides woodwind player Vern Dorge an extended opportunity to show off his technique on flute. Associate lead trumpet player Steve McDade follows with an equally attractive flugel solo.

Capable tenorman Mike Murley carries the first solo on Phillips’ arrangement of the Strayhorn classic Lush Life. He easily negotiates the arrangement’s transition from introspective torch song to medium tempo swing, moving effortlessly from long-line melodic embellishment to imaginative improvisation, capably picked up by trumpet soloist John MacLeod. A gentle electric guitar solo marks the return to torch song territory, and Murley sees the chart out to its dramatic and soulful conclusion.

Creamy as a caramel centre and twice as satisfying is the lyrical ballad Gentle Touch, another Phillips original showcasing the lyrical flugelhorn of Boss Brass alumnus Guido Basso. Sweet without being cloying, Basso’s solos at the beginning and end of the tune are restrained and introspective, but still manage to soar. His velvety musings bracket the more outspoken middle section of the chart, where Phillips’ deft touch with ensemble voicings (saxes against brass) is once again in evidence.

The band has a sense of humour, too. Check out the tasty nut cluster in the box: the two-steps-from-silly samba version of Struttin’ with Some Barbi-Q, which (to hopelessly mix up food metaphors) starts off sounding like a hoary Dixieland chestnut but which quickly turns into nouvelle cuisine pork ribs with salsa. Tony Zorzi again provides some decontextualized novelty, this time on banjo, as do Vern Dorge on clarinet and Tony Promane on trombone. Listen for a tight, unaccompanied unison horns-and-saxes passage prior to the band’s ultimate return to straight Dixie mode.

Phillips’ shamrock-tinged ballad Irish Cream opens with delicate, impressionistic flute trills, then slides gently into a beguiling alto-sax / acoustic guitar dialogue and segues through a lovely horn choir passage before opening up into a more conventional big-band ballad. Alto sax soloist Mark Promane lays down some nice melodic lines throughout, but I personally find his tone a bit harsh for the otherwise delicate flavour of this Phillips original.

Blues for Val is another uncomplicated and thoroughly enjoyable blues tune which shows off some of the band’s exceptional soloists. Kudos to Phillips for having the courage to write and perform straightforward, big, ballsy, imaginative band charts without feeling obliged to obfuscate things with quirky outside dissonances or quickly-stale, overly-clever arranging.

It’s clear from this disk’s ample and informative liner notes and the lineup of personnel that Phillips is paying tribute to a number of his past and present musical compatriots, including the late Keith Jollimore (of Lighthouse and Dr. Music fame), as well as popular Celtic vocalist John McDermott (who has employed Phillips as musical director and arranger for his commercially successful concerts and recordings for some time now). The intent is laudable, and the disk’s title track And It Really Was is a moving and beautifully crafted testimonial to the departed Jollimore. The extended (13-minute) chart has the feel and quality musicianship of a mid-1960s Maynard Ferguson jazz opus, with two contrasting interconnected movements, innovative solos (including Zorzi on rock guitar once again), and the same kind of controlled yet powerfully emotive reading that put the Ferguson band on the map in its heyday. It’s a worthy title chart, and on balance probably the best demonstration on the disk of both the band’s performance prowess and Phillips’ considerable arranging chops.

Unfortunately, despite his deserved popularity in the Celtic milieu, John McDermott doesn’t really make it as a band singer. His light tenor voice is pleasant enough, and Phillips’ arrangements are characteristically well crafted and imaginative. On the Chet Baker vocal classic I Fall In Love Too Easily the superficial similarity of McDermott’s voice to Baker’s is almost convincing enough to pull it off. But his distinctive vocal inflections and occasional Celtic nasality are out of place on such jazz-influenced pop standards as Ruth Lowe’s exquisite Put Your Dreams Away and Livingston and Evans’ Mona Lisa. Brigham’s obviously a nice guy, and appropriately respectful of his musical colleagues — but in this case, a generous acknowledgment in the liner notes would have been more appropriate than feature spots on this otherwise exemplary CD.

Despite excellent musicianship and tight performances throughout, the true star of the recording is Phillips himself. His years of yeoman service in the musical trenches have honed excellent versatility and a fine arranger’s sensibility, and I look forward to future offerings. Somewhat surprisingly, it has taken a little while for the jazz establishment to notice this important debut CD, and it even took a bit of digging to turn up a reference to the CD on an Internet search. Released in October 2001, it is only beginning to receive significant airplay here in Canada. Hopefully this will change soon, so that the band gets sufficient exposure to fuel CD sales and generate interest in a follow-up recording. Now that we have experienced the sampler, I hope Phillips focuses on some of the choicest morsels and produces more of a specialty box the next time around. It’s bound to be a tasty offering.


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