The history of jazz arrangement is prodigious. Musicians like Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Marty Paich, Stan Kenton, Terence Blanchard, Michel Legrand, Gerry Mulligan, Don Costa, Nelson Riddle, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw integrated larger ensembles successfully. A wide variety of instruments (often with multiple "same" instruments) built a complex structure and dynamics. Big band arrangements and orchestral film scores were important in establishing this compelling genre. There was also a crossover to popular music. But the muscular grace of jazz ensembles added a dimension of difficulty in bringing an improvisational form into defined structures. Albums like Quincy Jones' Walking In Space, Stan Kenton's West Side Story, Duke Ellington's East Side Suite, Gil Evans' Bud And Bird and Terence Blanchard's A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) are now part of Grammy history.
Seattle native Jay Thomas is a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, flugelhorn, alto/tenor/soprano saxophone) who began his career in the Bay Area jazz scene. After returning to Seattle, he performed with a variety of artists, including George Cables,Diane Schurr, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, Harold Land and Chet Baker. He has toured with the likes of Mel Lewis, Bill Holman and Jay Clayton.It seemed inevitable that Thomas, who expressed admiration for arrangers like Gil Evans would align with Oliver Groenewald. The German trumpeter, arranger and composer moved to the Northwest, and began working with contemporary local musicians to form the group known as Newnet. The result of this partnership is Jay Thomas With The Oliver Groenewald Newnet - I Always Knew. Over an hour of intricate jazz arrangements are voiced by horns, reeds and a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). The opening track is Freddie Hubbard's soulful "Yama". Starting with a short vamp and steady beat, Thomas takes on the composition with trumpet. The remarkably blended horns with flute offer delicate shade and swell to big band crescendo and return to a gentler breezy resonance. This two-pronged approach is compelling and accessible. This "ballad" project (per the liner notes) was recorded in one room, without headphones, separation or overdubs. Another shared hero, Dexter Gordon gets the large ensemble treatment on "Ernie's Tune". As Thomas switches to tenor saxophone, the classic sound of Gordon's "blue" jazz is framed by flutes and horns. Deft touches like a brief medium swing uptick make this interesting. The core melancholy is captured in the tenor lead with band counter rhythms.
The title track (one of two Groenewald's original) is framed in an ethereal context, as Thomas shifts to soprano saxophone. There is harmonic expansion and a classical interlude toward the finish. Lucky Thompson's 1960 smoky tune, "Deep Passion" has that colorful saxophone lead (with less vibrato than the original), but the cool jazz vibe is there. An evocative resonance permeates the late night jam. Pianist John Hansen contributes a nimble solo, and the group wrap around is lush. The second Groenewald composition ("Mrs. Goodnight") is a gossamer arrangement initiated with a trumpet lead. Newnet blends together as a second trumpet harmonizes. A tenor and alto clarinet shade later before a group finish. Billy Strayhorn's ruminative exploration "Ballad For The Very Tired And Very Sad Lotus Eaters" feels cinematic and features a tenor saxophone lead and another John Hansen solo. In another shift, "Born To Be Blue" has a low-keyed intensity. Delivered on horn., this tune has been strongly associated with Chet Baker. The warm textured chorus is countered by some sophisticated piano runs. At the end, a winsome flute mixes with the chorus.
"Blue Serge" (a Duke Ellington song) is rendered with some contemporary panache in a more upbeat configuration. The group maintains the large group complexity of Ellington, but elects not to emulate the dirge-like nuances. Instead there are crescendos and tempo variations. Thomas and Groenewald scale back the charts for Chick Corea's "October Ballad". There is some group expansion, but horn and piano command the solo instrumentation. Like all of the cuts, it is intriguing. But the orchestration goes into full throttle on Todd Dameron's "Soultrane". The listener can almost feel the rumble of the saxophones (especially the baritone) It is a fitting homage to Coltrane with fluid saxophone work and tempo upticks. Saucy licks anchor "You Don't Know What Love Is", but the late night reverie steals the show. The familiarity of Hoagy Carmichael's perennial standard, "Stardust" is woven into the fabric of the big band approach. Again, this version is original with the unusual chord modulations.
This is an excellent recording. Without unnecessary studio gimmickry, a sound mix of reeds and horns combine organically without any muddled tonality. Also, the crystalline piano is in sharp contrast to the mellifluous horns. There is great jazz in the Northwest!