Phil Kelly One of the Best Big Band Jazz CDs of '03 January 19, 2004 Kelly moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1998 and put together a band consisting of the top musicians in that area. Finally, in August 2003, the NW Prevailing Winds (with guests Pete Christlieb, Gary Smulyan and Andy Martin aboard) recorded "Convergence Zone." Both the band and the performance are outstanding. This is defintely one of the top big band jazz albums of 2003. Certainly, it is one of the best recorded big band jazz albums I have heard in a long time. Many of today's big band recordings have great clarity but lack presence and dynamics. But this recording has plenty of "up-front" presence. The sectional work and the dynamics are captured perfectly. Listen, for example, to the brass swells on the opening "Damp Brown Places" and you will be applauding not only the music but the superb engineering job. Among the many strengths of this CD is its variety. Kelly loves to have the band swing and it does so in many grooves here. Listen, for example, to "Damp Brown Places" "Subzatoot Shuffle" "Sweet Georgia Upside Down" (also recorded by Watrous), "You and the Night and the Music", "Yada Yada", and the uptempo Basie-like "OTBS" (featuring a parade of soloists), for an idea of how this band can swing hard in a pure jazz groove. Kelly voices the sax solis in a most interesting way. PK does a beautiful job with the ballads, too. "Bella Luce" is John LaBarbera's moving tribute to Conte Candoli, played in a heartfelt way by trumpeter Jay Thomas. Kathy's Waltz is Kelly's tribute to his late wife, featuring the tender but strong alto of Bill Ramsay. Both these ballads feature some very tasteful string programming. "Cuzn Bubba Luvz Ewe" and "The Refrigerator" are funky, greasy pieces played over rhythms laid down by a crack Nashville rhythm section. The jazz listener should not be put off by these tracks at all, as they are full of jazz content, blues licks, strong solos, and very tight ensemble playing. These latter pieces fit the album perfectly. Kelly's arrangements and compositions are more straightforward than say, Bob Florence's and Maria Schneider's, and thus easier to grasp on first listening. Yet there is plenty of musical meat here which rewards repeated listening. The soloists grab the listener's attention, as well. Tenor Christlieb and trumpeter Thomas star all over this album. Smulyan and Martin solo, too, though there is no lack of solo strength among the regular band members. Ramsay and trombonist Dan Marcus are especially outstanding, along with fine solos from pianists John Hansen and Pat Coil(on the funk tracks), trombonist Gary Shutes, saxophonists Travis Ranney and Jim Coile, and trumpeter Vern Seilert. Special mention should be made of drummer Gary Hobbs who anchors the band on the jazz tracks and the ballads (Paul Leim is the drummer in the Nashville rhythm section). One veteran big band observer recently called Hobbs the best big band drummer in North America. Well, on the basis of this performance, there is no doubt that he has to be considered for the title. Everything Hobbs does, the swing, the accents, the power, the dynamics, is just perfect. He was fine on the Stan Kenton band, but he has developed over the years into a monster big band drummer. "Convergence Zone" is a wonderful big band jazz CD, which should be purchased without hestation by anyone who loves the art.