is a beautiful album, one in which almost everything composer / arranger Kim Richmond touches turns to gold. For one who was largely unimpressed by the Concert Jazz Orchestra's previous endeavors, that's saying a lot. But I'm only too happy to change course and sprinkle praise where it is due. If every album by a "concert orchestra" were as picturesque and persuasive as this one, I'd not hesitate to give all of 'em an emphatic thumbs up. That's not usually the case, however. Too often, it seems, the composer / arranger is more eager to flaunt his / her mastery of the idiom than to write music that is charming and listener-friendly. Richmond has met that challenge head-on and come away a clear winner.
But does the music swing? you may ask. In its own way, yes -- not, however, like Basie, Herman, Buddy Rich or other bands for whom swinging was the paramount goal. There are a number of agreeably rhythmic passages, and lissome solos by Richmond, altos Jeff Driskill and Phil Feather, tenors Glen Berger and John Yoakum, trombonists Bruce Fowler and George McMullen, trumpeters Ron King, Steve Huffsteter and Clay Jenkins, pianist Rich Eames and guitarist Tom Hynes, but all of that is peripheral to the cause as Richmond keeps the ensemble and his visionary charts squarely in the foreground.
As we said earlier, almost everything here turns to gold. The "almost" is required because of Richmond's lone extravagance, an over-the-top and at times less-than-palatable arrangement of the venerable cowboy anthem "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." It does have its moments (lovely intro, for example) but tends to lose its wheels in midstream as Richmond, in his words, "decomposes" the orchestral theme (in other words, lets the brass and reeds run basically free) before returning to solid ground, pretty much squandering respectable solos by himself, Berger, Jenkins and McMullen and making Bill Roper's "narration" superfluous (not to mention largely incomprehensible).
Elsewhere, Richmond shows far more restraint, opening with the radiantly lovely "Continued Obscurity" and pressing on with what he refers to in the liner notes as "the centerpiece of the album," the ethereal "Precious Promises" whose vibrant orchestral sonorities, fashioned by double reeds, multi-flutes and French horns, complement an exquisite prefatory statement by Bob Carr's bassoon and a forceful solo by trombonist Fowler. If that's the centerpiece, one hardly knows how to characterize Michel Legrand's hauntingly beautiful "You Must Believe in Spring," yet another breathtaking chart on which guest Bob Florence's unaccompanied piano introduces the melody and Driskill and King append compelling remarks. The multifaceted "Variations," which follows, was written as a tribute to the late Bill Russo whose forward-looking compositions for the Stan Kenton Orchestra and afterward followed a similar path.
Richmond based the composition "Franz" on the first four notes of Schubert's "Serenade." Bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ralph Razze set the rhythmic compass for incisive solos by Eames and Huffsteter. I must confess that I approached the next track, "Stella by Starlight," with some apprehension, as Victor Young's evergreen has always been one of my favorite songs. Richmond quickly set my mind at ease by adhering closely to the melody while painting a sumptuously textured tonal portrait based in part on Herbie Hancock's chord changes for a mid-'50s recording by the Miles Davis Quintet. I was enraptured by the CJO's version of "Stella" and believe you will too.
"3 Refractions," whose title, Richmond writes, "comes from the concept of viewing an idea from several angles," is another pleasant surprise, deeply melodic and concert-like in its ambitious point of view. "The melody," Richmond explains, "is very simple and thread-like, over a floating ostinato and pad of (at the beginning) bassoon, French horns and trombones. A calypso vibe creeps in before some strong harmonic structures help the piece build dramatically." True enough, and the result is spellbinding.
The CJO closes the show with Mike Crotty's luminous arrangement of "America the Beautiful," to which Richmond has added an introduction and ending and on which he states the melody on soprano sax while Yoakum weighs in with a gritty tenor solo. It's a great way to cap an essentially marvelous album, one that has earned Kim Richmond's stylish Concert Jazz Orchestra at least one ardent new champion.