David Matthews & The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra
(Milestone – 2002)
by John Barrett
For any arranger, the task is daunting: the tunes are all standards, and require more than the standard treatment. It is difficult to score them differently than Duke, while remaining respectful to his legacy – these are the shoes David Matthews has to fill. An arranger for thirty years (including a stint with James Brown), his charts are a model of dynamics, from soft interplay to raucous roars.
Take the intro to “It Don’t Mean a Thing”: a wave of eruptive brass yields to a single alto. The “doo-wahs” are done by muted trombones, as French horns and tuba growl below them. It sounds like a Maynard Ferguson chart until the soprano solo – Aaron Heick warbles up high, backed by Terry Silverlight’s hard cymbals. The brass appears for a block-riff … like Dolphy’s work on Africa/Brass. Ryan Kisor’s solo is mellow perfection, a group of reeds toodle along, and here comes Chris Hunter, an alto with intensity. (He sounds like Johnny Griffin on a smaller horn!) The shout chorus is more like a shriek, and then it ends – all this in just seven minutes. Matthews felt so strongly for this performance that he chose it to lead the disc. You will not disagree.
The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra is sixteen strong, all major figures on the New York scene. (Many have past big band experience: Jim Pugh with Woody Herman, Kisor with the Lincoln Center band.) “Prelude to a Kiss” has its theme stated en masse, with all contributing in ways hard to describe. (It reminds you of what Andre Previn said: “Duke raises a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!”) Out of this fog comes Lew Soloff – winsome, soft, and lovable. Some of the chart is too strident, but the best moments are gold, like Heick’s happy turn and Lew’s second effort.
“Mood Indigo” is too funky for my taste, though Soloff’s mute is a thing of beauty; better is “Come Sunday”, with a deep bed of woodwinds and an operatic vocal by Christine Sperry, who is absolutely delightful. (She almost sounds like Snow White!) Behind her is a sleek, Hefti-like chart; Soloff takes the solo with rough-hewn grace. This beauty is real, and will take many listens to fully appreciate. As we’ve known for eight decades, Ellington’s work is a feast for arrangers, as well as musicians.
“Satin Doll” slinks along, on a thick bed of harmony; sometimes it slides and sometimes it swaggers. Kisor has the best of the solos, and Heick has his moments. It gets a bit busy at times; that is fixed by the ending, which is soft and warm. The lone Matthews composition, “Song for Edward”, is dedicated to Ellington: Hunter lays an easy groove, while all is lush around him. A smooth-jazz sort of lick, it’s fun to hear the full band roar through something this gentle. The mid-section is ecstatic, and the end, where Hunter is swarmed by muted horns, is a special moment.
“Cotton Tail” is the expected jam session (Kisor has the mute this time, for a crackling sound) with a great brass riff in the middle. This rivals “Don’t Mean a Thing” as Matthews’ best arrangement – and that is saying something. Roger Rosenberg’s bass clarinet glows strong for “Sentimental Mood”, which is also how Soloff plays it. He is elegant and lowdown in the same solo; the backing is all sparkle. Matthews has his lone solo (on piano), and the track has the glow of this velvet. A classy job all the way; this is where the past and the present pay respect to the Duke.