What Time Is It? For 71 years the One O’Clock Lab Band from the University of North Texas has been raging, filling the air with well-muscled brassy charts by hungry students who are so damn good, you’d think you were listening to the love child of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd and Stan Kenton on steroids. Lab 2017 marks the 50th such CD for the country’s longest-standing college big band. As directed for the first time by Alan Baylock (who came over from Washington DC’s Air Force band, The Airmen Of Note, for whom he composed, arranged and directed for 20 years), Lab 2017 packs a considerable wallop. It has already been nominated in six categories for the 2018 Grammy Awards.
Harold Arlen’s 1943 “My Shining Hour” opens on a high note but originals like the 13:13 “Myself When I Am Mingus” and “Peacock’s Crown Blues” (both by future star reed man, Brian Stark) distinguish themselves with chops to spare. Then there’s the epic 9:45 adventure of Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High.” The obligatory Ellingtonia comes in the form of “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and, man, it swings like a bitch! Lab 2017 closes with Don Menza’s “Dizzyland,” a hard bebopper. This was one of 2017’s best big-band efforts.
It’s Reggae, ‘Mon! It was 1968 when guitarist/singer Albert Griffiths, now 71, formed The Gladiators in Kingston, Jamaica. Their string of ‘70s hits is a mile long, including a stint on Virgin Records with their Trenchtown Mix Up classic. The ‘80s and early ‘90s saw no less than 11 albums come out, five of which will be re-released by Omnivore. The first, 1992’s Full Time, is a stone gas, filled to the brim with slinky riddims, spliff-happy left-turns and remixes of a few ‘80s sides. Its 14 tracks segue beautifully and even include the entire ’83 U.S. Tour EP. Full Time will whet your appetite for other stoned soul picnics like 1982’s Symbol Of Reality, 1984’s Serious Thing and 1986’s Dread Prophecy. Can’t Wait!
Cincinnati Stalwart Queen City Blues by the Phil DeGreg Trio is a 12-track gem. I had almost given up on the standard piano/bass/drums format but pianist/composer/educator DeGreg — with the chops to manhandle Ray Noble’s super-tough 1938 “Cherokee” — mixes it up so well that I found myself simply marveling at not only his dexterity but his wide-ranging aptitude for assimilating what would normally be rote construction into dazzling art. He transcends Gershwin twice, tackles Steve Swallow’s 1966 “Falling Grace” with aplomb, rescues Jerome Kern’s 1939 “All The Things You Are” from the dustbin of time and even successfully transfers Antonio Carlos Jobim’s 1963 “Favela” samba from Rio to the University of Cincinnati where he has taught for the last 27 years. Richard Rodgers wrote “My Romance” in 1935 for the forgettable movie Jumbo but in this trio’s capable hands (they’ve been together over a decade) what’s old is new again and it sure sounds fine. Kudos to bassist Aaron Jacobs and drummer John Taylor for their unceasing sympatico. Both are finely attuned to DeGreg’s every twitch, tic and iota of his alternating nervous energy and relaxing mellifluousness.
Jazz Creep Elevation (Outside In Music) by multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer Danny Janklow, 29, is one hell of a memorable debut. Schooled in Philadelphia at Temple University by mentor trumpeter, Terell Stafford, and reaching his current prime upon a move west to Los Angeles, Janklow has put together a heady cocktail of swing, post-bop, fusion, groove and funk. Highlight “Creep,” — yes, the Radiohead song — with the haunting melody, sounds breathlessly romantic on alto sax. Janklow (who doubles on alto flute), infuses Thom Yorke’s alienation anthem with gospel sighs. Opener “Philafornia” could’ve also been called Calidelphia” as it pays tribute to the two locales which fostered his rise.
Janklow uses sound like Ellington used to, drawing upon the talents of 10 men as a palette upon which to flesh out his ideas. Pianist John Beasley, he of the big-band Monk’estra wherein Janklow still presides, co-produces and adds some wild Thelonious-inspired piano. (Janklow also plays in Postmodern Jukebox.) Vibraphonist Nick Mancini, pianist Eric Reed (he of Marsalis fame), bassists Ben Williams and Benjamin Shepherd, drummer Jonathan Pinson, and guest vocalists Jesse Palter and Michael Mayo all shine.
Manhattan Tour Benji Kaplan’s masterful Chorondo Sete Cores on Big Apple Batucada Records is a tour-de-force through his New York City hometown starting in “Bryant Park” and ending with “Leaves In The Wind.” Along the 13-stop visit, we’re “At The Vanguard” to meet “Familiar Strangers” before taking “A Joyful Stroll” in “The Wind.” From bolero, bossa nova, jazz, balladry and, especially, choro (a 19th Century Brazilian form predating samba, usually upbeat, wildly syncopated, with subtle modulation and wide spaces for improvisation), Kaplan mixes it up often enough to sustain multiple concentrative listens.
A deft guitarist, worldly composer and arranger of intricacies bound to entice, Kaplan sets his solos deep within a cast of players on flutes, clarinets and French Horn who add gravitas and swirling non-stop action. No drums, piano or bass interfere with these flights of the imagination. In fact, it’s this exact rare combination of colors that sound so exquisite, daring and adventurous. A chamber ensemble of the highest order, their natural affinity for ear-pleasing rhythmic excursions never falters (every track is under four minutes). Thus, the listener is constantly in motion…just like the music itself.
Minnesota’s Finest I didn’t even know there was a Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame until I read that singer/songwriter/keyboardist/mandolinist Scottie Miller is in it. Stay Above Water by the Scottie Miller Band is a self-released jamboree of epic proportions. He wrote all 12, harmonizes with pistol-packin’ red hot Texas mama Ruthie Foster (he’s her touring piano man) on “Keep This Good Thing Goin’” and leads his tight guitar/bass/drums quartet rockin’ and a’reelin’ with the feelin’ (with some help from a rampaging horn section). Dude sings up a storm. He’s got a southern rock mentality as his band lays down some bigtime Godzilla grooves, absolutely crushing it with intensity, as produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Plus, his thoughtful lyrics actually makes one think. Yeah, Scottie Miller has all the bases covered. Stay Above Water is a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth.