Kelly retired to the northern reaches of the Puget Sound area around five years ago after a 30+-year career in film, TV and advertising. The last time he wrote charts for a large jazz ensemble was in the mid-1970s, on two superb but now sadly out of print albums with trombonist Bill Watrous, Manhattan Wildlife Refuge from 1974 and Tiger of San Pedro from 1975. 3,500 "clients" later, plus numerous arrangements for Doc Severinsen ñ both with the Tonight Show orchestra and for symphonic appearances ñ the Dallas, Houston, North Carolina and Vermont Symphony pops series, and an extended association with the Fort Worth Symphony beginning in 1975, he has returned to his first love with this project. Students at the Bud Shank Port Townsend Jazz Workshop have profited from his expertise as a clinician and big band coach in 2002 and 2003.
In a recent telephone conversation, Kelly cited Bill Holman and Willie Maiden among his favorite arrangers, and mentioned that he was looking for the fire and spontaneity of Terry Gibbs' aptly named Explosion band on this CD. The coiled-spring swing of "O.T.B.S." (Old Time Blues Sót) exemplifies the canny good humor and supercharged drive he's talking about. Done in one take, with everyone sight-reading, this thing rocks. "They just turned on the light and we went," as he put it. The string of solos by Bill Ramsay, Gary Shutes, Jay Thomas, Travis Ranney, Andy Martin and Chuck Deardorf stokes the furnace with no deadwood. There are four other energized and (somewhat) similar romps, all wittily titled ("Damp Brown Places," "Subztatoot Shuffle," "Sweet Georgia Upside Down," and "Yada Yada.") His arrangement of the Schwartz-Dietz standard "You and the Night and the Music" motors along at a merry clip, with fine, concise solos from saxophonist Jim Coile, trumpeter Vern Seifert, pianist John Hansen and ñ especially ñ trombonist Andy Martin.
The session's two ballads feature string programming by Matt Bennett. Synthesized strings tend to grate on my nerves in most cases, but the way Kelly has integrated them so seamlessly in his arrangements sways my prejudice here. "Bella Luce (for Conte Candoli)" would be a Grammy winner for Best Jazz Solo Performance in a just world. Jay Thomas "channels Conte" ñ as Kelly put it ñ in a trumpet solo and dramatic cadenza that pays tribute to the recently departed brass master in an emotionally immediate fashion reminiscent of Candoli's collaborations with another heart-on-sleeve improviser, trombonist Frank Rosolino. "Kathy's Waltz," written for Kelly's late wife and soulmate, is a feature for alto saxophonist Bill Ramsay. It's an incredibly beautiful melody, and Ramsay reaches deep inside, plumbing the depths and heights of human experience, the joy and sorrow, the intertwined Yin-Yang ñ the saudade essence as Harvey Siders' notes point out ñ in a memorable and nakedly direct interpretation. Ramsay was a major impetus in getting this recording produced and released. Thank you.
Then there are the two "funk" tunes, with an in-the-pocket rhythm section from Nashville led by North Texas State alum Pat Coil on piano, that conjure up the kind of James Brown crossed with Basie groove of Don Menza's stint with the Buddy Rich band. Purists may scoff, but "Cuzn Bubba Luvz Ewe," and "The Refrigerator" will chill you out.
Oh, did I mention that Pete Christlieb, a monster of muscular tenor saxophone prestidigitation, solos on six of the ten tracks?