Big band fans worldwide will be interested in acquiring this tasty collection of all-time hits that fill out 16 tracks on Volume I of The Galaxy All-Star Orchestra’s Tribute to the Kings of Swing. Having heard some of these charts in person last winter at Brock University (cross-reference below), I was curious to compare a controlled studio date to the sometimes perilous adventures of a live gig.
The fifty-minute set is bookended by Jay Alter’s stellar tom-toms that drive both the opener (“Sing, Sing, Sing”) and the brief, full-cast encore (“It Don’t Mean A Thing”). In the former, all is revealed: Ross Wooldridge’s magical licorice stick does more than credit to Benny Goodman’s artistry—it takes it to the next level, effortlessly sailing through the score with poise, style and aplomb. Yet the Achilles heel of this CD is also aptly demonstrated: the balance between sections—the reeds being sent to the corner and the piano banished to the wings—never allows this remarkable troupe of musicians and vocalists to blend, bob and give these full-throated arrangements their due.
The brass predominated to the point that at times (e.g., “Let’s Dance” where the rhythmic pulse finally started to boil) the saxes seemed to vanish and it wasn’t until the first-rate version of “The Sunny Side of the Street” that I was sure guitarist Jessie Barksdale had actually made the session—the few notes that did float through made me eager for more.
That said, there are plenty of fine moments to enjoy. The animalistic opening of “Carioca” is the perfect foil to the driving choruses (aided immeasurably by Gary Binstead’s bass which walks with just enough push to keep everyone thinking across the bar lines) that follow. Once again Wooldridge slithers and soars around and above his colleagues with panache.
Vocally, the Moonglows add warmth and pizzazz to their quintet of songs. And not a minute too soon in “Chattanooga Choo Choo” where their first entry saves this classic from certain derailment, even as the shrieking clarinets sound more like birds in distress than whistle stoppers.
Matt Dusk’s Sinatra homage gets closer every time. In “All or Nothing” his feel is spot on but true greatness will only be achieved when the melodic phrases are fully supported to their conclusion. The full-cry orchestration between verses was marvellous as was the cheeky interjections from the bass trombone.
Jason Logue’s rough-and-ready trumpet solo in “I’ve Heard That Song Before” was the ideal complement to Robin Lea’s stylish, savvy voice that convincingly brought this fine arrangement home.
Co-music director Eddie Graf—taking a page from the Acker Bilk tone school—served up a magnificent “Begin the Beguine” that should be required listening for any serious student of jazz; not to be outdone, Lenny Graf’s Boots Randolph-like tenor solo was equally memorable.
But in many ways, the pick of this collection is “Stardust” where Johnny Liddle’s solo (closer in timbre to Al Hirt than Harry James) gives a fresh, totally convincing take on the timeless favourite. Clearly the rest of the band members were inspired to match his work, pulling together to produce a terrific result.
This is a recording project that deserves to continue. Let’s hope that Volume II builds on the many strengths of the initial album and finds a mix-down that lets the music, well, Sing, Sing, Sing. JWR