Mass Pleasure is the fourth album by the San Francisco-based Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, which is contemporary in the best sense of the word; that is, belonging to this age and time. While the nine charts are as modern as one could envision, they are firmly grounded in time-honored jazz and musical tradition, never forswearing rhythmic or harmonic convention and structure to accomplish some undefined or exotic purpose. The CJO, which was launched more than a decade ago, validates the fruit of that experience, playing together with notable warmth and congeniality.
The program consists entirely of original compositions, two each by current leader Alex Budman, former leader Christopher Pitts, bassist Lorenzo Farrell and pianist Leonard Thompson, and one by the late Oliver Nelson. Nelson’s requiem “Ballad for Benny” has Budman sitting on clarinet for the song's namesake, Benny Goodman, and dedicating his inspired performance to another outstanding clarinetist and mentor, the late Abe Most. Elsewhere, Budman shows his versatility by soloing nimbly on alto (his own “In Case of Emergency”), tenor (Pitts’ “Little Prayer”), and soprano (Farrell’s “Samba in 7”). “Samba” (also featuring Mike Olmos on flugel) is an explicit highlight, as is Farrell’s other composition, “The Croxmont Jive,” written originally for his piano and Budman’s tenor and orchestrated by the latter. The spot-on solos are by Thompson, alto Charles McNeal, and the CJO’s blue-chip drummer, Brian Fishler.
The opener, “Emergency,” hustles briskly along behind crisp ensemble work and engaging statements by Budman, trombonist John Grove, and Olmos (on trumpet). Budman and Thompson are front and center on “Little Prayer,” an homage by Pitts to John Coltrane, inspired by “Dear Lord” and nicely arranged by Chuck MacKinnon. Pitts also wrote the Latin-contoured “Girolata,” whose fiery stand-in rhythm section includes pianist Marco Diaz, drummer David Flores, and percussionist Jes's Diaz. Completing the session are Budman’s sensuous “Mood for a Time,” written in 1994 for a quartet and featuring Thompson’s piano; and Thompson’s compositions “Sidewave” (solos by Fishler, trumpeter Joel Behrman, tenor Tod Dickow) and “When We Walked in the Sun,” a lyrical conduit for Eric Crystal’s expressive tenor.
Many would agree that the world needs more Instruments of Mass Pleasure, and the CJO has done its best to help ease the shortage with a large and invariably pleasing stockpile. Those who appreciate a modern big band that places music in the forefront are sure to dig it.