A certain strain of modern big band jazz writing has emerged over the past quarter century which is incredibly detailed, complex and sometimes awe-inspiring. Yet it often lacks warmth and memorable melodies, and nearly creates a barrier between the music and the average jazz listener. Thankfully, composer/arranger Phil Kelly, while not simplifying his music at all, has chosen another route. His music, as evidenced by the 2006 recording "My Museum" and the 2003 CD "Convergence Zone" is warm, uplifting and swinging, and reaches out to embrace the listener. Kelly's music both invites and rewards repeated hearings.
For "My Museum" Kelly traveled from his home in Washington State to Los Angeles to have nine of his charts (including five Kelly originals) recorded by a first-rate big band assembled by lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. Hence the band title, "The SW Santa Ana Winds." Accompanying Kelly on the trip were baritonist Bill Ramsay and trumpeter Jay Thomas. The latter made a great impression on "Convergence Zone" and he shares trumpet solos on "My Museum" with the excellent Bob Summers.
The album opens with Kelly's swinging take on Duke Pearson's "Jeannine" which gives a strong indication of the quality of music throughout the CD. "Bluelonious" is a medium slow blue swinger, with some Basie-like saxophone section sounds, and a great shout chorus following Brian Scanlon's spirited tenor solo. "Pleading Dim Cap" is a spiky and challenging chart based on diminished chords and brilliantly played by the band. "Daydream" is a surprisingly jaunty chart that will surely wake you from any slumber (but honestly, there's not much chance of that with this CD). The title selection is a vocal performance by Greta Matassa accompanied by strings, woodwinds and muted brass. It is a fairly short but haunting and memorable track. On his earlier Origin CD "Convergence Zone" Kelly included two funk charts with strong jazz content. On "My Museum" he has one, "Jean Beatov Stomp", which features a modern guitar solo by Grant Geissman. This tune really does stomp and has the band roaring by the end over the strong rhythmic groove laid down by an augmented rhythm section. The chart on "Body and Soul" incorporates samba, swing and ballad sections, and features a masterful solo by Bill Ramsay. The mellow "Lazy Afternoon" features some intriguing woodwind voicings, a sweeping piano solo by Bill Cunliffe, and a solo by Geissman in a significantly different style than on "Stomp." The CD ends with the swinging "Zip Code 2005", a rewrite of the "Zip City" chart Kelly wrote for Bill Watrous in 1973. The rhythm section of Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington, and drummer Steve Houghton is in peak form on this track (and indeed, the section is excellent throughout the CD). The rhythm section on the title track consists of Darin Clendenin on piano and Clipper Anderson on bass.
The Santa Ana Winds is full of great ensemble players and the band jells very well on these Kelly charts. Besides the soloists already mentioned there are outstanding solo spots by Lanny Morgan on alto, Peter Christlieb on tenor, and especially trombonist Andy Martin who hits a home run in each of his solo appearances.
Phil Kelly has come to wider recognition in the jazz world fairly late in his career, but "My Museum" shows again that he is one of the most interesting and satisfying composer/arrangers in jazz today. His work never loses track of what the jazz listener likes to hear (at least this listener) - tight ensemble work, dynamic contrasts enhanced by a fine recording quality, space for many and varied solo voices, interesting but not far-out ensemble sounds, and a real dedication to a swinging in every rhythmic groove. Just as "Convergence Zone" was one of the top CD's of 2003, so "My Museum" will be one of the top CD's of 2006. This CD is highly and warmly recommended to all who love swinging, modern big band jazz.