In any musical group, there is an important concept known as
ensemble. Ensemble is an umbrella term for everything
that goes into the group playing together. Not only must the individual notes
begin and end with precision, they must be interpreted as a group. Any
infraction, no matter how slight, lessens the effort of the group. There are
plenty of examples of superior ensemble playing: the Count Basie band, the
Netherlands Wind Ensemble, the Robert Shaw Chorale, etc. However, many groups
perfect their ensemble technique by playing together on a regular basis. In the
case of the H2 Big Band co-led by trumpeter Al Hood and pianist Dave Hanson,
the hand-picked group achieves a remarkable ensemble with an absolute minimum
of rehearsals and performances together.
The band’s debut CD “You’re It” has just been released by
Jazzed Media. Most of the musicians are from the Denver/Boulder area, but three
of the five trumpets are from out of town, as is one of the saxophonists.
Without question, the musicians know each other and have gigged together in
various combinations, but never all in the same big band. There was one
rehearsal for the CD, followed by two days of recording. Most of the final recordings
were achieved with a minimum of takes, and the results—especially the ensemble
All of the arrangements are by Hanson, and while many of
them fall into the tradition of post-WWII big band jazz scores, they still
provide plenty of challenges to the musicians. “Blue In Green” is in 7/4 time
(interesting how this unusual approach to the Miles Davis tune is part of this
album and Gretchen Parlato’s new disc—I’m fairly confident that each found the
concept independently!), “Romanza” is a Gil Evans-inspired Hanson original that
requires great instrumental control by both the band, and soloist Hood, and
“Joy Spring” features the trumpet section in a harmonized version of Clifford
Brown’s solo from his lesser-known Pacific Jazz recording.
This may be the most democratic big band in jazz history. In
most big bands, there are a few soloists and the rest of the band plays the
written parts. Not so here. The musicians were all picked for their
capabilities as soloists as well as their ability to add to the ensemble. So,
every member of the band gets a solo somewhere on the album (except, oddly
enough, for bassist Ken Walker; no one explains why, but they rightly
acknowledge his fine work as anchor of the rhythm section). The all-important lead
trumpet part—more often than not, the one who leads the ensemble by example—is
split between three different players, but you won’t hear the difference as
they change roles.
In the liner notes, Hood and Hanson praise the solo work of
all of their colleagues, so a brief set of album highlights will suffice here.
The opening shuffle, “Blue Brews” is grounded with Todd Reid’s superb drumming
and Mike Rodriguez’s trumpet solo effectively stretches the harmonic base.
Bobby Shew and Al Hood have a good-natured trumpet duel on the title cut, and
“Singin’ In The Rain” features a well-played theme statement and variation by a
small group of horns, and an excellent alto solo by Rich Chiarluce. The Buddy
Rich-inspired “BMG” has solos by tenorist Bob Rebholz and Shew, but the band
steals the show with astoundingly precise and—very exciting—ensemble playing.
Hanson gets a rich palette of sound from the group on “For Claus”, which stems
from one of composer/arranger Claus Ogerman’s unique chord voicings. I’ve always
had a problem with Cy Coleman (he seemed so consciously smug), but Hanson’s
arrangement of “Big Spender” is great fun, and the duet between Hood and
trombonist Nelson Hinds is full of good humor.
Of the remaining pieces, “Double Doubles”, and the aforementioned
“Blue In Green” and “Romanza” are the most progressive, challenging the players with, respectively, difficult chord
progressions, odd and shifting time signatures, and thick harmonic textures.
Hanson, alto saxophonist Wil Swindler and flugelhornist Jason Carder all acquit
themselves well on “Doubles”; trumpeter Brad Goode emulates Miles at the
beginning of “Blue In Green” but soon demonstrates how his own harmonic lexicon
has expanded on the master; and Hood displays his moody, avant-garde solo style
on “Romanza”. There are a couple of duet passages on this track by the
co-leaders and they are exceptionally well-played.
By far, the liveliest playing on the disc happens on “Al’s
Well” and “Joy Spring”. The former is an up-tempo
swinger featuring the band’s two Al’s: trombonist Al Hermann and trumpeter
Hood. Hermann is the one of the mainstays of Denver’s jazz scene—rather quiet and
unassuming on the surface, but on stage, an inventive and swinging player that
raises the artistic level of every group in which he plays. Hood and Hermann
find a great chemistry on this track and their duet near the end of the track
is a cause for celebration. “Joy
Spring” is the album
closer, and after the trumpeters blaze through the harmonized Clifford Brown
solo, Hood leads off a long and exciting series of solos where all five
trumpeters are featured, and each in his own way pays tribute to the composer.
Eight months after the recording session, Hood and Hanson,
who both teach at the University
of Denver’s Lamont School
of Music, reassembled the band at the college for a concert performance. Nearly
all of the band was there (quite a feat considering the busy schedules of these
performers!), and the subs—including the versatile Pete Olstad, filling in for
Shew—all played like veteran members of the band. With little rehearsal time to
both refresh the memories of the players that recorded this music and to
acquaint the subs with it, the band’s concert was as impressive as the CD, with
all of the tight ensemble work intact. In fact, they played like they had been
working together every night since the recording. And that may be the best
compliment I could offer.