We're not told much about Gordon Lee except that he's a Portland, Oregon-based music educator who has performed and recorded with a number of small groups and has been writing big-band charts for eight years. His influences, he writes in the brief liner notes, range from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Maria Schneider to Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky, and the imprint of one or more of them is visible from time to time in each of his cutting-edge compositions, suitably modified to reinforce Lee's purpose.
Lee wrote all but one of the ten selections on Flying Dream (the other is Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When," which he arranged), and his charts are by no means easy to play. He has cleared that hurdle by mustering a seventeen-piece ensemble comprised of some of the most accomplished musicians in his neighborhood, players who at least make it sound easy. Lee writes with a vision in mind, assigning a "theme" to each of his compositions. Thus, "Vicious Cycle" represents "the need for perseverance to navigate the vicious cycle of existence," "Tobacco Monkey" lampoons "the blues and the smoky bars where the monkey [smoking habit] is hanging out, chattering away," and so on. Lee's treatment of "Where or When" is a highlight, in spite of his avowal that it's a "free association" arrangement about which some listeners might say, "It doesn't go like that!" Perhaps not, but it goes quite well, as do the strapping solos by tenor Tim Jensen and trumpeter Farnell Newton.
"Alternative Blues" is another eye-opener, as it sounds unlike most other blues that one encounters. Altoist Gary Harris, trombonist Stan Bock and drummer Carlton Jackson get the point and respond with some tasteful blowing. There are other impressive solos as well, most notably by tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto ("Sentimental Fool," "Wait for Her," "Winter Comes," "Now What?"), Lee at the piano with Harris ("Vicious Cycle") or Jensen ("Bitter Wind"), baritonist Robert Crowell ("Now What?"), Newton and altoist Tom Bergeron ("Flying Dream").
An admirable debut by a talented composer/arranger/pianist whose big-band charts are fresh and invigorating.