On East West, his first-ever big-band enterprise, Canadian-born saxophonist Michael Zilber leads world-class ensembles in New York City and San Francisco, which speaks volumes about his artistry and gravitas. Zilber not only plays saxophone on both bands, he composed eight of the fourteen numbers on this handsome two-CD set and arranged all of them.
Even while playing and recording in smaller groups on both coasts and in Canada, Zilber had been writing and setting aside big-band charts for the past few years, gleaning a number of his personal favorites for inclusion on East West. Besides saluting some of his musical heroes (Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Paul Desmond, the Beatles), Zilber has renovated a trio of lovely and enduring ballads—Mel Torme / Bob Wells' "The Christmas Song," Harold Arlen / Yip Harburg's "Over the Rainbow" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." In so doing, Zilber proves to be an admirable big-band writer, framing charts that are both contemporary and accessible. In other words, even as he explores new byways, Zilber never strays from the basics: melody, harmony and rhythm.
In the Big Apple, Shorter is represented by the time-shifting "Fall," Davis by the shuffling "Joshua," Coltrane by Zilber's "Fantasia on Trane Changes" and "Repressions" (a funky facsimile of Coltrane's "Impressions"), Brecker by Zilber's rip-roaring original, "The Breckerfast Club." In the City by the Bay, the Beatles are embodied in a funk / rock version of John Lennon / Paul McCartney's "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club," Desmond in Zilber's reverential "St. Paul" (which sounds a touch like Johnny Mandel's "Emily)," whose swinging midsection includes a luminous (albeit uncredited) alto solo. Disc 1 opens with Zilber's buoyant "Hen House" (which could be a bow to Charlie Parker's "Hot House") and includes "The Christmas Song." On Disc 2, "Over the Rainbow," "Skylark" and three enticing originals by Zilber, "Weather Wayne," "Shiva for Shifflett" and "Another Prayer While Waiting," round out the program.
Having assessed the positives, it should be noted that there are a couple of missteps, most notably on the West Coast, on which the session's lone vocal, by velvet-voiced Joe Bagale , serves only to prove that Harburg's exquisite lyrics need no enhancement—nor does Carmichael's beauteous "Skylark," which suffers heavily from Zilber's oddball arrangement, in spite of an admirable trombone solo. The bands themselves, well-stocked with seasoned pros, are beyond reproach, and Zilber does his best to keep them sharp and focused. In sum, an above-average big-band venture that dances around the border of exceptional but lands somewhere short of that.