The Horizons Jazz Orchestra Swings Out

Horizons Jazz Orch

HARRIS: Red Apple Sweet.* The Runner.+ Fourth Dimension.+ The Brite Side.  BRICUSSE-NEWLEY: Pure Imagination.+ TURNER-LAYTON: After You’ve Gone.+ ROSS-LEVINE: The Sound. GERSHWIN-HAYWARD: Summertime. BERNSTEIN-SONDHEIM: Maria. STRAYHORN-HARRIS: A Train Bossa+ / Horizons Jazz Orch.: Dennis Noday, Ryan Charman, Jack Wengrosky, Fernando Ferrabone, Chaim Rubinov, +Carl Saunders, tpt/fl-hn; Michael Balogh, Jason Pyle, Tom Lacy, tb; Steve Mayer, bs-tb; Scott Klarman, a-sax/fl/s-sax; Mike Brignola, a-sax/fl/cl; Billy Ross, t-sax/fl/cl; Joe Mileti, t-sax/fl; Randy Emerick, bar-sax; Gary Mayone, pno/org/kbds; Ranses Colon, bs; Luke Williams, gt; George Mazzeo, *Jonathan Joseph, dm / Pineapple Arts (no number)

The Horizons Jazz Orchestra is a surprisingly massive (19-piece, plus frequent guest soloist Carl Saunders) jazz band founded by first trumpeter Dennis Noday, an alumnus of the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson bands and co-founder of Superband. The orchestra’s director is trombonist Michael Balogh. This particular CD highlights the jazz compositions and arrangements of the late baritone saxist Lee Harris who, except for Leonard Bernstein’s Maria, arranged all of the pieces in this set that were not his compositions.

The music, not surprisingly, is straightahead jazz with a 1960s and ‘70s flavor. The orchestration is pretty standard—nothing here as imaginative as Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi or Rod Levitt—but well written for all that, and the band is propelled by an ungodly powerful rhythm section that sounds for all the world like the one Buddy Rich had with his big band. Indeed, I would say that Ranses Colon’s bass could make a mountain swing and Jonathan Joseph, playing drums on this track, is as potent as those of any big band drummer you’ve ever heard. This is a power band, all right!

Harris’ compositions have some intriguing features in them, however. Red Apple Sweet starts out like gangbusters, the melody resembling Wade in the Water, but halfway through the tempo is halved and trombonist Balogh plays a gorgeous solo, his tone reminiscent of Tommy Dorsey before the uptempo kicks in again. In his arrangements of the old chestnut After You’ve Gone and his own composition The Runner, Harris uses the flugelhorns in an interesting way to create a softer, more pastel sound. The latter is a 6/8 tune with an intriguing melodic line and an even more interesting B theme that complements it. Saunders is listed as the only soloist on this track, but the first is clearly one of the alto saxes. Once again, Harris slows the tempo down later in the piece, and also changes keys when Saunders does enter on flugelhorn.

One might be forgiven for assuming that Fourth Dimension might be a moody, atmospheric piece; in fact, it is a straightahead swinger with a simple but catchy melody. Nothing fancy about this one, just fun to listen to, with good solos by Gary Mayone, baritone saxist Randy Emerick, Saunders again (now on trumpet) and Luke Williams on guitar. By contrast, The Brite Side is an odd sort of funky tune that makes little impression, going in one ear and out the other. Not even the now-expected downshift of tempo impressed me very much. Even the quasi-funky electric piano solo is routine and unimpressive and, at nearly 10 minutes, it is a long-winded piece of nothing. The Sound is a ballad and also unimpressive, but at least it only lasts 5 ½ minutes.

Of course Summertime is also a ballad, but here Harris has cast it in a quasi-samba rhythm which gives it a new flavor. The first soprano sax solo by Scott Klarman just plays the melody pretty much straight, and even his later playing seems rhythmically tentative, as if he were afraid of hurting the music by projecting himself too strongly. I almost missed Sidney Bechet’s playing on his famous 1939 recording of the tune…that playing had guts and drive. With Leonard Bernstein’s Maria from West Side Story, the tempo comers down again, but the song has such an interesting structure that you really’ can’t hurt it. This is the only tune on the CD not arranged by Harris, but rather by Don Sebesky; again, the voicing isn’t very original (it sounds like standard 1950s big band in that respect), but the setting is dramatic and sets up the soloists extremely well. Trumpeter Dennis Noday plays a sort of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White cadenza at the end.

We end our excursion with a really clever arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train with a bossa nova beat. Harris clearly had fun deconstructing the original tune and putting it back together again with an entirely different meter and redistributing the stress beats. It’s possible that, in a blindfold test, a knowledgeable jazz listener might not even identify it as “A” Train, but merely comment that it sounds like that piece. Billy Ross’ tenor solo is laid-back and warm, and at one point he almost humorously tosses in a little quote from The Girl From Ipanema. And good old Carl Saunders returns, playing trumpet rather than flugel horn but doing so in the middle and lower range of the trumpet so that he almost sounds like Bobby Hackett. It’s a really inventive solo that builds in each chorus and creates an entirely new structure around the same chords, and the ensemble writing in the ensuing chorus is really inventive, some of the best on the entire album.

A pretty good CD, then, except for a very few tracks that missed the mark.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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