Composer/conductor Dave Slonaker probably won't qualify as "prolific," at least based on recorded output alone, as he spends a lot of his time behind the scenes in film and television work—but one must appreciate the level of craftsmanship that he brings to his big band projects. His debut release, Intrada (Origin Records, 2014), received a well-earned Grammy nomination, and his sophomore effort is no less accomplished, with the well-designed compositions and outstanding ensemble work that justify all the attention it will no doubt receive.
Excepting the last cut, the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon-penned "I Had the Craziest Dream," the album features Slonaker's compositions, all of which are fully realized, multifaceted journeys that evolve in intriguing directions. The album's title track kicks things off wonderfully, with a fervid energy and a fiendishly complex arrangement. "A Curve in the Road" is similarly devious in its orchestration, with a growing urgency that emerges as the piece unfolds. Slonaker's rhythm section is a fine one, with pianist Ed Czach, bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer Peter Erskine all having appeared on Intrada. Erskine is especially invaluable, alternately coaxing the pieces along with subtle interjections and enlivening them with punchy rhythmic bursts.
While the up-tempo burners are excellent, so too are the ones that take a less boisterous form. "A Gathering Circle" has all the evocative richness of a Maria Schneider composition, relying more heavily on mood than on big-band dazzle; and "Vanishing Point" establishes a compelling narrative arc, beginning in a ruminative vein before taking on a more assertive posture under an enticing bass ostinato, and integrating the horns in cunning ways, making excellent use of the album's pristine sound quality so that each nuance is readily audible. And while Slonaker's wily arrangements should get a lot of our attention, he also relies on superlative contributions from his colleagues, with fine solos on display throughout the album. Highlights include Bob Sheppard's dynamic soprano saxophone, which carries "Vanishing Point" along its varied trajectory, and tenor saxophonist Tom Luer, who soars on the Latin-inflected "Uncommonly Ground."
It is also worth mentioning that, unlike Slonaker's debut, this recording was made in highly adverse circumstances—in October 2021, to be exact, during the heart of the pandemic. Getting any ensemble together for a recording date was challenging enough, let alone a big band with twenty musicians. It's a testament to Slonaker and his band's vision and dedication that they were able to pull this off, and with such excellent results to boot.