4 1/2 STARS
Drummer Michael Waldrop has named his inaugural album as leader of a big band Time Within Itself. An even more appropriate name might have been It's About Time. Waldrop, who has taught for the past decade or so at Eastern Washington University, boasts a resume as long as one's arm. It includes a master's degree from the University of Memphis and a doctorate from the University of North Texas where he was a member of the celebrated One O'Clock Lab Band. Perhaps most important, Waldrop spent another ten years quarterbacking Jack Cooper's admirable Memphis-based Jazz Orchestra of the Delta, a service Cooper has helped repay by deftly arranging the eight selections on Waldrop's debut recording.
Besides arranging, Cooper wrote "Vistas" and "Her Moon Rises East," both of which feature wordless vocals by Sandra Dudley, and co-wrote "El Vino" and "Tunnell Vision" with Waldrop who not only kicks the band from the drum set but plays the vibraphone on his compositions "Inner Truth" and "Time Within Itself." Jose Rossy, a former percussionist with Weather Report, joins the ensemble on five numbers, guitarist Jimi Tunnell on three ("Tunnell Vision," "Vistas," "Her Moon"). In his liner notes, Bill Milkowski broaches the word "fusion," but purists need have no qualms: this sounds precisely like contemporary big-band jazz, an assurance that holds true especially on the lively finale, "Twisted Barb," a throwback to memorable flag-wavers of old underscoring fiery solos by trumpeter Dave Spencer, alto Will Campbell and, of course, Waldrop's busy drums.
"El Vino," a medium-tempo groover amplified by an uncredited organ (most likely pianist Steve Snyder), gets things off to an agreeable start thanks to its pleasing melody and earnest solos by tenor Larry Panella, trumpeter Larry Spencer, baritone Paul Baker and trombonist Tony Baker. Rossy and Waldrop light a fire under "Tunnell Vision," whose "fusion" aspect is underscored by Tunnell's steadfastly neoteric guitar. "Time Within Itself" is another highlight, a muscular jazz waltz with sharp solos by Snyder (piano) and Campbell and more splendid timekeeping by Waldrop who continues (with Rossy) to fan the flames on the Latin-flavored "Munich Musings" (solos by Snyder, trombonist Greg Waits and trumpeter Mike Steinel). Waldrop moves to vibraphone on the lustrous ballad "Inner Truth," on which Panella solos on flute, Steinel on flugelhorn. Tunnell returns on "Vistas" and "Her Moon," with eloquent statements by tenor Panella on the first, alto Tim Ishii on the second.
Cooper's charts are impressive, the ensemble equally so in its allegiance to unraveling their finer points. Waldrop anchors a sturdy rhythm section (Snyder, bassist Carl Hillman, guitarist Chris Derose-Chiffolo) that lends brass and reeds unflagging support. As it turns out, Waldrop's first visit to a recording studio with his own big band was worth the wait.