While big-band albums generally differ, sometimes widely, in tone and temperament, there are definitive criteria by which every one may be evaluated—arrangements, performers, sound quality, sequencing and, above all, the elusive but imperative swing quotient. Dave Slonaker checks all those boxes and more on Convergency, a superlative successor to his excellent Grammy-nominated debut album, Intrada, released in 2013.
To begin with, Slonaker, best known as a film and television composer, is an excellent big-band writer and arranger, one whose music, as was said of Intrada, is "contemporary in the best sense of the word, harmonically sophisticated yet always accessible thanks to an unswerving reliance on time-honored melodies and rhythms..." Slonaker retraces that path here; while his charts exemplify the best of contemporary big-band jazz, each one is fresh and sparkling, with more than enough dynamism and ingenuity to capture a listener's interest and hold it from start to finish.
Even so, Slonaker's best-laid plans and best-written charts would be undone were it not for the presence of talented and versatile musicians whose charge it was to breathe life into his musical concepts. That poses no problem, as the label "talented and versatile" can readily be applied to every member of Slonaker's world-class ensemble, comprised of a number of the most accomplished and sought-after players in his southern California bailiwick, from lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron to rhythmic anchor, drummer Peter Erskine, and everyone in between.
Like Duke Ellington, Slonaker writes with ensemble and soloists in mind, and brings out the best in his colleagues, individually and collectively, starting with the title song, inspired by Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and "written as a mini concerto for big band featuring different sections and textures...as building blocks to a swinging finale." Mission accomplished, with solo honors shared by trumpeter Clay Jenkins, baritone saxophnist Adam Schroeder and pianist Ed Czach.
Guitarist Larry Koonse and tenor Tom Luer are front and center on "Uncommonly Ground," Czach, trumpeter Ron Stout and alto saxophonist Bob Sheppard on the light and lively "Duelity." "A Gathering Circle," which follows, was inspired by Slonaker's visit to an Indian village museum and the gathering of its residents to discuss community concerns. Koonse, drummer Erskine and soprano saxophonist Brian Scanlon map out splendid solos, as do Jenkins, Luer and Scanlon (alto) on the ensemble's tour de force, the aptly named groover, "A Curve in the Road."
Stout and tenor Rob Lockart lend their singular voices to the meditative "Inner Voices," which leads to "Sometimes a Notion," an easy-flowing charmer featuring Lockart, trombonist Alex Iles and bassist Edwin Livingston. "Vanishing Point," Slonaker writes, was his "pandemic composition...a pandemic lullaby of sorts" whose unhurried cadence is underlined by Sheppard (soprano), Erskine (deft and tasteful as always) and Czach. The trombone section is showcased on "And Now the News," which soars high on the wings of buoyant solos by Iles, Charlie Morillas, Ido Meshulam and bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach, leading to a climactic shout-chorus.
Slonaker closes the album with its lone standard—a ballad at that—which is usually a no-no, but not in this case, as the song is the Mack Gordon/Harry Warrentune "I Had the Craziest Dream," which Slonaker describes as "one of the great love songs" (no argument here). The tune was introduced by Helen Forrest, arguably the finest band singer who ever lived, in the 1942 film Springtime in the Rockies, with trumpeter Harry James's orchestra. As James is no longer available, Slonaker called on one of the greatest trumpeters of today's generation, Wayne Bergeron, to replace him. Needless to say, there is no loss of emotional power or technical brilliance. James would have been proud, and "I Had the Craziest Dream," as it turns out, wasn't an ill-advised finale after all.
When one enters the fray with an album as impressive and well-received as Intrada, it is often difficult to produce a second recording that lives up to that promise. Slonaker has done so with room to spare. In fact, he and the band have earned themselves a second well-deserved five-star review.