CD cover - A to Z of JazzA to Z of Jazz

27-Mar-2004

Fine Arts Brass
Nimbus Records: NI 5703
Total Playing Time: 63.40

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They say there's nothing like blowing your own strumpet, and according to Fine Arts Brass's own website they are "the longest-lived, most innovative,
most widely travelled and most highly acclaimed" British brass ensemble.

It is not known what Paul Archibald and his English Brass Ensemble (founded in 1974 as against Fine Arts Brass in 1980, and also widely travelled, with a number of new works commissioned for them) would make of that claim, but be that as it may they certainly have some pedigree when it comes to performance, commissioning new works and recordings. They have always encompassed a wide range of styles in their music making, often including items from the lighter side of their repertoire alongside more major works.

For this recording, entitled "The A to Z of Jazz", they present a survey of the history of jazz in just over an hour, from ragtime through the big band era right up to more recent figures such as Frank Zappa and Pat Metheny, and all on five brass instruments plus the odd bit of percussion!

Many of the arrangements are by Stephen Roberts, French horn player at the group's birth, and several of these will be familiar from adaptations made for brass band. The remainder are by Simon Lenton, one of the ensemble's current trumpeters, who plays alongside Angela Whelan, herself no stranger to the banding world. The arranger's skill is an elusive art and, whilst there is no doubting the ingenuity employed there is no question that some of the items sound more authentic than others, and no doubt there will be those purists who will take exception to some or all of them!

The informative sleeve note divides the pieces up into appropriate headings according to style, and the items are then presented in chronological order,
leading to some overlap of styles which is probably a good thing if one is listening to it in one sitting. The earliest items, covering Ragtime, Dixieland, and The Charleston, together with musical theatre and movie
tunes, tend to be the most effective, possibly in part because they have often been played by small groups.

In particular, the two trumpets prove
themselves quite adept at imitating the clarinet, especially in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Tiger Rag". This latter includes some suitably raucous
trombone playing, although the number as a whole, and this can be said of many of the earlier items, can seem rather strait-laced, without the inhibition and lack of restraint found in the original performances, or even in some of the Canadian Brass versions.

Some arrangements, such as "Way down yonder in New Orleans" feature some effective use of mutes, whilst some clever interchanges are included in the
Gershwin favourite "They can't take that away from me". "Strike up the band" allows the players to really let their hair down, whereas a combination of "A foggy day" and "Love walked in" is played in a nicely laid back style. One track that does tend to highlight the juxtaposition of various styles is a version of "Carnival of Venice" as played by Harry James. Starting off fairly straight it then launches off into a boogie-woogie style finish - definitely a technical showcase, but listeners will have to decide for themselves whether they think it works!

One real surprise on the disc is how effective the arrangement of Neal Hefti's "Li'l darlin'" is - to take such a big-band classic and set it for a quintet is quite a feat, but the tempo is just right, with a more than
passable impression of a baritone sax, and including a cool trumpet solo - it is hard to believe there are not more players involved.

The more recent numbers may prove to be a little more of an acquired taste, although the Latin American influence in Chick Corea's "Fiesta" brings out some very lively playing, particularly from the two trumpeters, and Frank Zappa's quirky contributions, "Theme from Lumpy Gravy" and in particular "Dog Breath Variations", are full of interest. "My favorite things" receives an attractive jazz waltz treatment - Julie Andrews it certainly isn't - whilst Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" calls for some tight ensemble playing in true bebop style, not to mention some very agile playing from the top trumpet.

As is usually the case in a small group, all the players have plenty to do and all prove themselves more than equal to the task in hand. Although the French horn is heard infrequently in the world of jazz, in the hands of Chris Parkes it certainly plays its part here, with many lively passages including a notable contribution in "Puttin' on the Ritz".

Sam Elliott on tuba is largely entrusted with the task of keeping the momentum going, although he too has a few melodic passages from time to time. Together with trombonist Simon Hogg and trumpeters Simon Lenton and Angela Whelan they provide a first class exhibition of brass chamber music. The presentation is good, although it would have been of interest to have some biographical details, and an indication of the various trumpets used.

As stated previously, this recording may not please purists either from the brass band tradition or the jazz world, and listeners will probably find some tracks more appealing than others, but as a demonstration of brass playing in a range of styles there is much to enjoy.

Peter Bale

What's on this CD?

1. The Thriller, Aufderheide, 2.05
2. Alexander's Ragtime Band, Berlin, 3.29
3. Tiger Rag, LaRocca, 3.29
4. Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Layton, 2.32
5. Strike Up The Band, Gershwin, 2.15
6. Puttin' on the Ritz, Berlin, 3.05
7. Smashin' 3rds — Valentine Stomp, Waller, 3.05
8. Top Hat, White Tie & Tails, Berlin, 3.09
9. They Can't Take That Away From Me, Gershwin, 4.35
10. A Foggy Day — Love Walked In, Gershwin 3.47
11. Carnival of Venice, arr James, 2.58
12. Salt Peanuts, Gillespie, 2.38
13. Li'l Darlin', Hefti/Basie, 3.52
14. Flight of the Foo Birds, Hefti/Basie, 3.35
15. My Favorite Things, Rodgers, 3.37
16. Theme from "Lumpy Gravy", Zappa, 1.56
17. Hay Burner, Nestico/Basie, 4.15
18. La Fiesta, Corea, 3.37
19. James, Metheny, 3.09
20. Dog Breath Variations, Zappa, 2.31

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