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Big Time is top-notch big band

It just so happened that "Birth of the Cool" by the Miles Davis Nonet was the next disc in my CD player the last time I played through the self-titled CD by the Big Time Jazz Orchestra, the Twin Ports' top big band. It kicked over before I had a ...

It just so happened that "Birth of the Cool" by the Miles Davis Nonet was the next disc in my CD player the last time I played through the self-titled CD by the Big Time Jazz Orchestra, the Twin Ports' top big band. It kicked over before I had a chance to hit the stop button, and the transition was pretty seamless.
That's saying something -- "Birth of the Cool" is one of the most influential recordings in the history of large jazz bands.
For those unfamiliar with Big Time, it formed in the late 1980s, putting together the Northland's top jazz musicians, and has been steadily growing since. The disc, recorded a year ago almost to the day, compiles seven songs written or arranged by members, plus one tune commissioned by the band with grant money.
Beyond the high quality of musicianship evident from first note to last, what listeners will pick up immediately is the diversity in styles present. Seven composers are represented, with styles ranging from mellow 1940s slow-dance music to uptempo mixes of styles with cocks crowing in the middle of them.
Some highlights?
"Tubs of Slaw," by Greg Kehl Moore, carries a fusion funk reminiscent of Maynard Ferguson's rhythm section, along with silky solo sax work by Rich Mowers. (It may be unfair to compare mere mortal trumpet players to Ferguson -- no one is shattering glass here -- but several songs on the disc do display some pretty good chops.)
"Carnival of Venison," by Duluth composer Brad Bombardier, carries sudden juxtapositions of style ranging from pseudo-classical stretches to, yes, cocks crowing. And several points of jazz in between.
The next track, "Sometimes Down," brainchild of Big Time artistic director and wind player Randy Lee, could not be more different. Mellow but pleasant, simple but interesting, much of the piece could have been written in the 1940s -- and that's a good thing. Featuring Lee's own smooth sax playing and the nicely balanced trombone work of Tim Stratioti and Chris Oberholtzer, the contrast with the preceding piece works in the disc's favor.
Mike Pagan's "Tacitus Plus" starts slow, too, but it's a complete different style, moody and contemporary. When the piece picks up the pace halfway through, astute listeners will be pleased to hear Gordy Johnson's solo -- the bass player's solid work, along with Dave Schmalenberger's drumming, holds the band together throughout. One hates to see those guys toil in obscurity.
Best of all is the last piece, Jerome Kern's "The Song is You," arranged by Mike Pagan. Though the piece puts Big Time in an accompanying role for vocalist Steve Vecchi, the group excels in it. And Vecchi is perfect for this tune, sounding genuinely like a Rat Pack crooner.
This is a strong ensemble -- anyone familiar with Duluth music will find many familiar names on the roster -- and the quality shows from the punchy brass riffs to the intricate woodwind harmonies to the universally well-executed solo work. A few timing problems, for instance at the end of "Slightly Watered Down," could be corrected, but the overall tight playing makes this clearly an anomaly.
This group is adventurous enough to be interesting, but conventional enough to remain accessible. It will work as toe-tapping background for casual jazz fans, but stands up to front-and-center attention with its superb musicianship. Heck, it's even recorded well -- engineer Tom Mudge really captured the big band sound.
The best place to pick up a copy of the CD is at Big Time's next concert, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m. in the Proctor High School auditorium.
Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer's reviewer at large. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or call him at 723-1207.

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