Dan Bonsanti’s “Cartoon Bebop”

Cartoon Bebop

2021 winnerCARTOON BEBOP / BONSANTI: Cartoon Bebop. A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet. MOREIRA: Misturada. S. CLARKE: Dayride. LEONARD-MARTIN: I’m All smiles. COREA: Cot a Match? Duende. HANCOCK: Driftin’ R. MILLER: Wood Dance. BRICUSSE: When I Look in Your Eyes. SHORTER: Infant Eyes / The 14 Jazz Orchestra: Brett Murphy, Jason Carder, Cisco Dimas, tpt; Dana Teboe, Major Bailey, tb; Ed Maina, a-sax/a-fl/pic; Ed Calle, t-sax/s-sax/fl/cl; Neal Bonsanti, ob/E-hn/cl/fl; Tom Timko, t-sax/fl; Peter Brewer, bar-sax/bs-cl/fl; Mike Levine, pno/kbds; Kemuel Roig, kbd; Lindsey Blair, gtr/el-gtr; Randy Bernsen, el-gtr; Mark Egan, Tim Smith, Nick Orta, el-bs; Jamie Ousley, Matt Bonelli, bs; Peter Erskine, Lee Levin, Mike Harvey, Jack Ciano, dm; Richard Bravo, conga; Dan Bonsanti, arr/cond / Dabon Music, no number

When you see a list of 24 musicians playing in a band called “The 14,” you know something’s up. And so it is. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, The 14’s director, Dan Bonsanti, was forced to make this recording via some real social distancing: having each musician record his part in their homes, then somehow mixing the whole thing together to make a coherent product. Bonsanti admits that this had its challenges: “I’ve always preferred selecting familiar, versatile players, whose musical skills and concepts were as like-minded as possible,” he writes, but “One of the biggest challenges was finding compatible players with home studios.”Since several of the regular band members didn’t have recording facilities, he had to search for replacements. And obviously, not all of these musicians play on all tracks. One of the drummers, Jack Ciano, for instance, only plays on I’m All Smiles while Peter Erskine plays on tracks 1, 7, 9 &10 and Lee Levin plays on tracks 2, 3, 5 & 11. Conga player Richard Bravo only shows up on Misturaba and bassist Nick Orta only plays on Got a Match?

But what impresses the listener is not the crazy-quilt of revolving players but how unified the band sounds despite the hardships of recording remotely one part at a time. Indeed, my only complaint of this CD is that the electric bassists are too loud, often as loud as the entire brass or reed sections. This was Bonsanti’s only error in mixing what was obviously a labor of love. Among the various replacement musicians he used here are Wisconsin-based trumpeter Brett Murphy and Arizona-dwelling Jason Carder, trombonist Dana Teboe from Maine and, of course, top L.A.-based drummer Peter Erskine who has graced many a jazz album. Other musicians heard here recorded their parts in Tennessee, New Jersey, and of course from various locales around Florida which is the home base of The 14 Jazz Orchestra when they are able to gather in person.

As for the selections performed here, Bonsanti says that he “spent countless hours listening to music across a wide spectrum of styles to choose the music for this project…I listened to each song on this album by different artists at least 100 times before I flet it had enough color, passion, and energy to engage the listener, while providing the setting for our soloists and rhythm section players to showcase their talents.”

The album’s title is based on the first piece in this set, in which Bonsanti was inspired by hearing a TV commercial featuring his childhood favorite cartoon characters, Rocky and Bullwinkle. He hints at the show’s theme song by using piccolo and tuba while adding motifs from Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. My readers know that I’ve oft complained about the lack of imagination that I hear in many modern-day jazz combos and especially orchestras; it’s as if these people, who consider themselves “innovative,” have never even heard of, let alone heard, such past masters of jazz orchestration as Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Shorty Rogers, George Russell, Johnny Richards, Clare Fisher, Rod Levitt or David Murray. But as I say, Bonsanti has a terrific ear for color and balance; he likes to keep his big bands “light,” playing with the streamlined sound of, say, an octet at most, and his soloists on this CD—both the regulars and the stand-ins—are nothing short of terrific.

In short, what Bonsanti has done here is just a shade short of miraculous, and his instincts were right. The pieces chosen for this CD have great variety and are interesting in and of themselves. I was particularly impressed by the way drummer Lee Levin, working remotely, was able to conjure up a Latin-sounding rhythm that actually runs counter to the basic beat of the piece in Airto Moreira’s Misturada; even with a crackling trumpet solo by Cisca Dumas, it is the ensemble and the complex drumming that highlight this track. But make no mistake, each and every solo on this album is a gem; seldom in my long years of reviewing jazz orchestra recordings, first on LP and then on CD, have I heard such a brilliant succession of soloists. You almost have to go back in time to the legendary Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band of the 1970s to find a comparable succession of talent, and believe me, for me that’s saying a lot because I absolutely worshipped the Akiyoshi-Tabackin band. (I got to see and hear Toshiko and Lew in person only once, at the 1979 Aspen Music Festival, playing with and leading a band of student jazz musicians, but I’ll never forget it. I was too much in awe of them to go up and ask for their autographs afterwards. To me, they were gods of jazz.)

For an example of how well everything fits together on this album, check out Stanley Clarke’s Dayride. Just listen to the complex yet colorful chart that Bonsanti has created and the way each solo fits into place (though, as usual, I must issue a complaint against the flabby, whining electric guitar solo…interesting musically but with that obnoxious rock sound intruding on the proceedings). Bonsanti’s fine ear for both orchestration and the right soloists pays off here as it does in track after track; the ensemble portions of these pieces fit with the soloists, and the soloists fit with the overall conception. Because of this, each and every track is (mostly) satisfying in its own way.

Moreover, Bonsanti doesn’t have just one orchestral “sound.” Because he has an ear for color, he elicits some ear-ravishing textures out of his forces that are not sentimental or treacly. An excellent example is the jazz waltz I’m All Smiles with its flute section (and, if you look at the header to this review, God knows he had enough flute players to stock the New York Philharmonic on this session) which is interwoven nicely into the soft brass textures. This man knows what he’s doing with an orchestra, and the results are continually interesting.

I know that Bonsanti won’t know what on earth I’m talking about, but this whole endeavor put me in mind of the far-ahead-of-their-time charts that pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis wrote for the Jean Goldkette band back when they had Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and Steve Brown on bass: arrangements in which every single component, from introduction to coda, had a form and purpose and yet still provided a real jazz kick with surprises in each chorus. If you (or Bonsanti) want to know what I’m talking about, click HERE and listen to what Challis created way back in 1926-27, particularly Riverboat Shuffle, Singin’ the Blues, I’ve Found a New Baby, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and My Pretty Girl. Different era, different style, but identical concept.  

For me, one of the most fascinating tracks was the way Bonsanti completely transformed Herbie Hancock’s Driftin’ into a sort of late-1950s jazzy-funk-“walking” sort of piece…shades of the old Blue Note style, and every bit as good as the best tracks Blue Note ever issued. Alto saxist Ed Maina plays his tail off in this one, as well he should; the arrangement absolutely cries out for such involvement. I especially loved the little turnaround he wrote at the 4:07 mark—a small piece of the puzzle but important to the overall concept of the music. Just brilliant.

I must also laud Bonsanti for his excellent programming of tunes. Too often in modern jazz albums, I find, there are two ballads played back to back or, worst of all, a ballad to end a record. There are no such errors in judgment here. You can listen to the entire album in sequence without feeling the need to skip a track because it’s dull. Nothing on this album is dull, and even when the solo you’re currently listening to isn’t one of the most scintillating on the album, it fits into the musical concept which, in my opinion, is more important.

And I’m happy to report that this CD will be released on my birthday, January 15! Yes, by all means, get this one. It’ll excite your ears and put a smile on your face.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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